By Ed Bolen, President and CEO, National Business Aviation Association (NBAA)
The COVID-19 pandemic has touched every aspect our lives, drastically altering our once-common routines and resulting in seemingly innumerable and inescapable societal changes. The ongoing crisis continues to profoundly affect most segments of our nation’s economic system and transportation network as well, including the business aviation community.
Business aviation – simply stated, the use of an aircraft to support and promote companies of all sizes – offers many important contributions to citizens and communities across our country. Since 1949, it has been the role of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) to support this vital American industry and to advocate for greater understanding of these and other valuable benefits it provides.
Even in the face of COVID-19, the truth remains that the vast majority of companies that depend upon business aviation are small and medium size companies, and it has been consistently demonstrated that companies using business aviation outperform their competitors that do not. Perhaps most importantly to the readers of Expansion Solutions, business aviation also supports communities of all sizes, particularly during times of crisis.
Business aviation encompasses air ambulance services, flying medical patients in need of immediate, emergency care at local hospitals, and the transport of others to specialized facilities across the country. Schools, universities, postal services, homeland security, law enforcement and military operations, firefighting teams, and other government and private-sector service providers also utilize the aviation industry to reach areas not served by commercial airlines.
In serving these multiple roles, a single factor remains constant: every aspect of business aviation relies upon small community airports, which are often termed general aviation or “GA” airports. These airports connect their communities to the world, bringing people and goods from communities to national and global markets, while stimulating local economic growth.
Of course, business aviation is not unique in its reliance on these facilities. One of our nation’s greatest strengths is the size, diversity, efficiency and safety of our aviation system, and these attributes would simply not be possible without a robust network of GA airports throughout the country – a network that, while dangerously threatened by COVID-19, has also proven to be incredibly resilient against this crisis.
GA Airports Respond to Declining Traffic
From the time the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. in early March, its effects devastated traffic counts at the nation’s busiest airports utilized by business aircraft. Despite these economic challenges, and the need to maintain proper social distancing requirements, nearly all GA airports remained staffed and operational throughout the crisis.
While traffic impacts across the country varied greatly due to different state restrictions, operations generally remained down across the board. As one example, overall flight operations at L.G. Hanscom Field (BED) in Bedford, MA – a significant business aviation facility – dropped 75 percent in April compared to the same month in 2019.
“Business aviation traffic is our bread and butter, and that was down 90 perccent in April,” said Robert Olislagers, manager for Centennial Airport (APA) near Denver, CO, another busy GA and business aviation hub. “We normally average 1,000 operations per day with some days exceeding 1,800; on April 12, we had 22 flights total.”
Overall operations at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport (FXE) in South Florida dropped 30 perent in April with a 60-70 percent drop in business jet traffic, while California’s Van Nuys Airport (VNY) experienced a 75 percent drop in jet operations in the last week of April. “This is literally the craziest thing I’ve ever seen happen to this airport,” said VNY manager Flora Margheritis.
“We’re down at least 75 percent,” added Joe Frasher, director of Greenville Downtown Airport (GMU) in South Carolina. “While there’s still an occasional flight here or there, traffic has decreased tremendously and our FBO is taking it on the chin. We’re usually the busiest GA field in the state.”
At the same time, airports worked to adapt their procedures to maintain safe operations while also ensuring the protection of their employees. FXE manager Rufus James noted the airport’s emergency response and recovery plan assisted here, while Olislagers said an infectious diseases response plan developed in the aftermath of the SARS and H1N1 pandemics helped APA with advanced preparation for the current crisis.
Fortunately, there are some encouraging signs traffic has started to rebound and, despite these challenges, airports have maintained an eye toward the future in planning for the eventual rebound in traffic. That includes by appealing to potential new customers who may not have considered traveling by business aviation or chartered aircraft in the past but are now looking toward these options out of concerns about social distancing requirements.
Business Aviation Companies and Stakeholders Lends a Hand
While we don’t yet know all the lasting effects the crisis will have on our world, we know that business aviation will unquestionably play a significant role in our nation’s recovery from this crisis. In fact, it already has, as many companies have offered their support and solutions in response to the pandemic even as they grapple with steep declines to their business and flight activity.
Manufacturers such as Bombardier Business Aircraft, Piper Aircraft, Rolls-Royce and Textron Aviation retooled their production lines to produce ventilators, face masks and other urgently-needed medical and personal protective equipment (PPE) while industry support companies such as fixed-base operator (FBO) Million Air and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) provider Duncan Aviation organized relief flights and PPE donations.
Companies and entrepreneurs relying on business aviation to support their operations also kicked in for the relief effort. For example, GLI Pool Products of Youngstown, OH pivoted from its usual manufacturing of pool liners and other products to instead cut and sew face masks for hospitals and first responders. Idaho businessman and pilot Dennis Combs flew his Eclipse 500 light jet to deliver much-needed supplies to Navajo Nation to help in their fight against the pandemic.
Other companies – ranging in size from global aerospace manufacturers Boeing and Airbus, to as small as Billings Flying Service in Montana – repurposed their 3D printers to manufacture face shields to help protect medical workers on the front lines fighting the virus. Universal Weather and Aviation donated their flight planning services to pilots and operators supporting of COVID-19 relief flights, while Sandpoint, UT-based winglet producer Tamarack Aerospace leveraged its connections in China to source 2,400 N95 masks to fill their local hospital’s immediate need for PPE.
Renewed interest in the importance of medical specimen testing and the laboratories processing them throughout the country led to an increased focus on the logistics providers using business aircraft to ensure these critical packages arrive promptly at their destinations.
For example, the tech blog Ars Technica profiled the fleet of business aircraft used to transport medical specimens, including COVID-19 test samples, to Quest Diagnostics labs across the northeastern U.S. Similarly, San Francisco CBS News affiliate KGO Channel 7 profiled one of the contract on-demand charter pilots who the national lab-services provider relies upon to transport specimens in other parts of the country.
The national health crisis has also demonstrated the important work performed by volunteer pilot organizations that transport patients, doctors and medical equipment to and from remote locations. For example, Angel Flight East partnered with Project SHIELDS to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) to dozens of medical facilities throughout the Northeast, while pilots flying for Texas-based Angel Flight South Central donated their time and aircraft to fly doctors to rural areas and cancer patients for treatment in Houston.
Part 135 operator Wheels Up partnered with Feeding America to provide tens of thousands of meals for those who suffered job losses and other crises during the pandemic, while the Colorado Aviation Business Association (CABA) and the West Texas Aviators Facebook group adapted their usual practices to transport medical equipment, doctors and COVID-19 test kits where they were needed.
In recognition of the industry’s long-standing focus on such relief efforts, earlier this year NBAA announced a partnership with the American Hospital Association to activate our Humanitarian Emergency Response Operator (HERO) database for coordination of COVID-19 response capabilities. We have been encouraged by the willingness of member companies to offer their aircraft and other assets for assistance.
These are just a few of the hundreds of examples of how business aviation has risen up to support humanitarian initiatives across the country. To learn more about these and other ways in which our industry has helped to provide critical, life saving relief during this unprecedented time, I encourage you to visit nbaa.org where we’ve documented several dozen of these vital humanitarian efforts.
Regulatory, Legislative Support Vital Throughout Crisis
Even as our business aviation community answered the call to service and performed these critical humanitarian tasks and missions, the entire industry has also grappled with the significant and devastating economic effects from COVID-19 that threatened the very livelihoods of many operators, charter providers and support companies. Throughout the crisis, NBAA has staunchly advocated to ensure their interests were represented in the halls of Congress and before the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Support from our industry has been vital to ensuring the voice of NBAA and other aviation groups has been heard by lawmakers over these difficult months. Our members’ response to the association’s mobilization alerts has been key to the support aviation businesses and others have received through government programs such as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the Paycheck Protection Program.
This engagement also helped NBAA secure much-needed accommodations for extensions or exemptions on pilot medical certifications, training proficiency and a host of other pressing requirements, ensuring that general aviation and business aviation pilots could continue flying safely as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the usual timelines for physician visits and certification renewals.
Our combined advocacy efforts continue, as NBAA has joined with other general aviation groups to request that Congress implement temporary relief from federal excise taxes on fuel for non-commercial general aviation operators, until Jan. 1, 2021 – the same timeframe granted to commercial operators in the CARES Act – to help ensure that all business aviation pilots may continue supporting their companies and communities throughout this crisis.
Moving Forward from a Difficult Year
Without question, the events of 2020 have required all of us to be flexible in responding to this crisis and to make difficult choices, and NBAA has not been immune from these effects.
As one example, the pandemic led to the cancellation of several key NBAA meetings and conferences, including two prominent international events – the Asian Business Aviation Conference & Exhibition (ABACE) and the European Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (EBACE). In early July, we also made the difficult though prudent decision to cancel NBAA’s own Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (NBAA-BACE) that was scheduled for October 6-8 in Orlando, Florida.
Widely regarded as the most important three days in business aviation, NBAA-BACE brings together current and prospective aircraft owners, manufacturers and customers into one meeting place to get critical work accomplished, all while once again showcasing the size, strength, and diversity of this vital global industry.
Although we had looked forward to welcoming the global business aviation community to Orlando and safely bringing people together at NBAA-BACE in an impressive showcase for our industry throughout the world, plans are already underway for next year’s edition coming to Las Vegas, Nevada from October 12-14, 2021.
We also remain engaged with leading health professionals to ensure attendees’ experiences at all future NBAA events remain safe and that all necessary and prudent precautions are taken, both in the COVID environment and beyond.
Indeed, as we all contend with the highly challenging circumstances surrounding this pandemic, the NBAA team continues to work at all levels to support daily business aviation operations, to represent the broader business aviation community and to emphasize our industry’s importance to the nation’s economy and transportation system.
On behalf of the more than 11,000 members of NBAA, I’d also like to again thank Expansion Solutions readers for your continued support for our industry and for NBAA. Together, as an industry and as a nation, I know we will emerge from our COVID-19 moment stronger and even more resolute in our shared commitment to support the needs of our communities, our country and our world.
About the Author
Ed Bolen has been president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) since September 2004. Prior to joining NBAA, Bolen was president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) for eight years. He has served on a U.S. Presidential Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry, and a Presidential Council that made recommendations to government on national aviation planning. He is a member of the Board of Governors of the Flight Safety Foundation and the Board of Directors of the National Aeronautic Association. He also serves on the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board of The National Academies.