In a manner that no one could’ve predicted, the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to global airline travel led to alternative use of travel dollars, as people sought other ways to find transportation for business and recreation. From late 2020 until now, the business aviation industry, across most sectors, has flourished in unprecedented ways, unwittingly putting a strain on the industry as it has tried to keep up with new demand.
Separately, the windfall many people secured in personal investments has afforded them the ability to fly privately, perhaps for the first time. In some cases, fears about exposure to the virus have kept people away from the airlines. OEMs and aftermarket brokers have seen record aircraft sales as people want to fly on their own terms.
What’s more, the change for many to hybrid work schedules has driven a new travel trend called business leisure, as people blend the two and seek to work from anywhere, and in style. All of this has created an effervescent private charter market, and the collective sense is that this shift will endure.
This has also created second-order effects for the industry to deal with.
FLYING spoke with Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), at the group’s regional forum in Florida last week to gain his perspective on the focus of his group for the remainder of 2022.
From a macro level, it seems it would be hard to know what to focus on. There are supply chain issues, infrastructure opportunities, emerging technologies, and even a scattered workforce.
Bolen said, in many ways, his group’s focus hasn’t changed all that much.
“Our mission is to create an environment that allows business aviation to thrive in the U.S. and around the world,” he said. “One of the ways we do that is by finding things that will help us grow rather than impede it.
“One of those is safety, always. We need to be safe and we need to be perceived to be safe.”
Indeed, going as far back as 1990 into the 2010s, National Transportation Safety Board data shows that business aviation maintains a safety record that is comparable to that of commercial operators. Still, Bolen said that safety is his group’s top priority.
“Every year, we come in [asking], ‘How do we enhance safety so that is always a huge focus?’”
As the world is clamoring for businesses to become more climate-friendly—and governments have embraced the challenge with zero-emission mandates around the world—embracing sustainability is clearly at the forefront.
“In terms of sustainability, we’re proud to be part of this world and to make it more connected, and smaller. But we plan to be around for a very long time. So being able to grow and thrive sustainably is a big part of our future,” Bolen said.
To that end, in 2021, the organization launched the Sustainable Development Flight Department Accreditation Program to serve as a benchmark for departments to keep that promise.
But to achieve sustainability means many different things have to work well together.
“A lot of focus is on sustainable aviation fuel, electric propulsion, hydrogen propulsion, hybrid propulsion, but beyond that, ground operations, production materials—it ends up that there are lots of ways we can measure it and we’re finding ways to do more and do it better,” he explained.
What will be some of the metrics? Bolen said that includes tactical measures such as “considering how we fly at the optimum flight levels and routings” to reduce waste. He expanded that purview to choosing sustainable fuels, as well as efficient ground operations that he’s encouraging departments to adopt as standard operating procedures.
Companies will now be able to register in that program to earn accreditation, which will come through a rigorous audit of their operations.
Much has been made of the recent infrastructure bills that injected fresh capital into the aviation ecosystem. NBAA was on the forefront of those discussions, lobbying for enough dollars to improve the entities its members interact with.
“We’ve got a national treasure in terms of our airport infrastructure—5,000 general aviation public-use airports—and that is an enormous opportunity to get people where they need to go when they need to go there,” Bolen explained. “We want to make sure that that infrastructure has an opportunity to exist, evolve, and adapt, so it makes sense for today’s population, and tomorrow.
“We are also thinking about the ability to operate airports in an environmentally friendly way, perhaps by generating power,” he said. “All of that represents a big opportunity, so the infrastructure is a big part of the ability to get people where they need to go when they need to go there.”
As the eVTOL market has exploded onto the scene—as players such as Joby, Archer, and Wisk pursue certification—NBAA is positioning itself to support the opportunities these new modes will offer. While there are skeptics downplaying the likelihood of eVTOLs playing a big part in our future, Bolen reframed the situation in the long arc of innovation in business aviation.
“We’re going to have to find ways to make sure we’re promoting aviation safety and promoting connectivity.”
“Business aviation has always been about on-demand air mobility,” he said, before rattling off a list of technologies from new powerplants and airframe designs to winglets and composites that have made air travel more efficient. In that sense, this advanced air mobility technology is a likely progression in the industry.
“We just saw in December, legislation was introduced for both planning and construction grants—it’s not law yet, but that’s an example of where we want to facilitate this,” Bolen said.
Implementing the new technology, however, presents its own challenges. Recently, when cellular networks began expanding their 5G networks in areas close to airports, there was strong pushback from airlines and the business aviation community. American Airlines’ Doug Parker said, “It wasn’t our finest hour as a country.”
Bolen says the industry and the networks will need to coordinate more closely because both aviation and increased connectivity are important to society.
“We’re going to have to find ways to make sure we’re promoting aviation safety and promoting connectivity,” Bolen said.
It seems that the one disruption that companies have not been able to fully grasp is the dispersion of the workforce.
From pilots to skilled workers and even white-collar professionals, across all segments, the aviation industry is entering an unprecedented chapter that will require it to change how it thinks about recruitment and retention. NBAA is trying many things to try and do its part.
One such thing is empowering its local groups to have a bigger presence in their communities as a means of maintaining relationships and exposing young professionals to the opportunities in the industry. Bolen pointed out the Central Florida Business Aviation Association, a relatively new organization that he said is already having a profound impact.
“Every industry is struggling to find talent, and the competition out there is fierce. In order for business aviation to thrive, we need to attract, develop, and retain the best and the brightest,” Bolen said. “We have to let people know this isn’t just a job, but a fulfilling life endeavor, where you will be challenged, grow, find community, and bring your authentic self to the office.”