GRAND RAPIDS — This may be one of the most exciting eras in general aviation’s history, but the challenge for the industry will be to make sure the regulatory environment at the federal level doesn’t get too restrictive.
So says James Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation Association (NATA), a public policy group representing the interests of general aviation businesses before Congress, federal agencies and state governments.
“We are on the cusp of one of the most interesting decades in aviation that our nation has ever seen, and the businesses that make it up, I think, are very well poised to play a very, very important role in changing the way America uses aviation in a very significant way,” Coyne said. Historically, the aviation business was composed of small planes that went slow and big planes that went fast.
But over the last couple of decades the industry has produced small jet aircraft that fly fast and give people the ability to go anywhere at anytime, Coyne told a crowd gathered at Northern Air headquarters last week for an aviation “town hall” meeting.
“That is the growing segment of aviation today in America,” he said. “The airlines, as we all know, are suffering unprecedented economic difficulties. It’s not a given that the role of the commercial airlines is going to stay the same.”
According to Coyne, the biggest change in the private aviation industry over the last five years has been the growth of fractional jet ownership, which allows people to buy a share of a jet rather than the whole plane.
Coyne said he believes that smaller, point-to-point air travel in small light aircraft, including small regional jets, is going to be the fastest growth area in general aviation.
He said that some of the new airplanes that will come off the assembly line in the next few years will cost one-third the price of the cheapest jet airplane today.
Locally, Northern Air at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport offers fractional jet ownership through its subsidiary, The Company Jet, a company it launched two years ago with a fleet of new $5.5 million, eight-seat Cessna Citation Bravos.
The service gives companies on-demand access to the jets through the purchase of fractional shares of the aircraft.
The Company Jet has shareholders in Chicago, Wisconsin, South Bend, northern Indiana, northwest Ohio and all of Michigan’s lower peninsula, according to Chuck Cox, president of The Company Jet, Northern Air and Northern Jet Management.
Congressman Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, recalled how Congress passed a mammoth bill after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks three years ago that not only put in place airport and airline security regulations but huge amounts of money to cover the commercial airline’s losses.
Ehlers, a member of the House Subcommittee on Aviation, said he voted for the bill under the assurance that Congress also would cover the losses suffered by general aviation businesses.
“But I soon found out that general aviation doesn’t have the clout the big guys do,” he said. He urged members of the general aviation committee to contact their local congressmen and tell them that’s not fair.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has not issued security regulations for the general aviation industry and Ehlers hopes they won’t.
“From my experience, general aviation has done a good job of taking care of their own houses and putting in place their own security arrangements.”
Ehler said he’s very disturbed by the fact that Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport near the nation’s capital has not reopened to general aviation since Sept. 11.
Last month, both House Republicans and Democrats urged the Bush administration to relax post-Sept. 11 security curbs that have closed the airport to most private planes.
“The ban on charter flights, I think, is really unfair and it’s picking on a particular industry and denying services to that industry,” Ehlers added. He encouraged members of the general aviation committee to speak up on that issue, as well.
NATA’s 2,000 member companies provide aviation business services such as on-demand air charter, fuel and ground services, aircraft maintenance and pilot training.
All general aviation businesses provide components of the nation’s air transportation system and serve more or less as the backbone of the system, as Coyne sees it.
Yet general aviation is probably the most heavily regulated by the federal government of any industry, with the exception of the nuclear power industry, he said.
“So we have a very, very great dependency on the federal government understanding our business,” Coyne added. “Unfortunately, probably two-thirds of the members of both the House and the Senate don’t understand our segment of aviation that much.