Angry defense of business aviation by several industry and political leaders dominated the opening session of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) in Las Vegas Oct. 10. Despite economic uncertainty, it may prove to be one of the best attended shows with the largest number of exhibitors in years.
Still, one observer who had talked with aviation companies in the Las Vegas Convention Center for the past two days said, “I don’t even see cautious optimism. I see cautious pessimism.” Much of the blame for the uncertainty, economic woes aside, was aimed at the Obama administration. There have been remarks by President Barack Obama characterizing business jets as pointless luxury, a proposal for a $100-per-flight fee for air traffic control, and a proposal for less advantageous depreciation schedules for the purchase of business jets. A standard phrase heard often is the accusation that Obama has “…a bully pulpit used to bully this industry.”
“It does not make much sense,” said Pete Bunce, president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. “One thing it does for sure—it brings us all together.” FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, before delivering his standard safety speech calling for professionalism, said, “I saw signs as I walked into the convention center saying ‘no user fees.’ I took it out of my speech,” he joked. But he made good on his word and did not mention user fees, although he did mention that the FAA can’t survive on years of continuing resolutions and inaction by Congress on routine yearly budgets.
“I apologize for the inaction in Washington,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said as he began his speech. He hinted there may be action—or at least effort—coming to break the deadlock on fiscal matters. Manchin, a pilot, is a member of a coalition defending general aviation.
Chief defenders for the opening session were David Everitt, president of the Agriculture and Turf Division of Deere and Company, who spends half of each month traveling the world via business jets, and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who has flown all his life and has used aviation for medical assistance all over the world since leaving the Senate in 2007. A physician, Frist specializes in heart and lung transplants. His wife is a pilot, as are his two sons. Frist was presented this year’s NBAA Al Ueltschi Humanitarian Award for his work shortly after Hurricane Katrina (his aircraft carried the first medical team to arrive) and in several countries in Africa.
Frist warned that on Oct. 28 the world’s population will top seven billion, but four billion of those lack access to medical care. Aviation is and will continue to be an important way to reach those people, he said. Turning back to a theme of defense of business aircraft like the ones he owns, he said, “I hope the politicians will think about the heart transplant victims.” He noted he has exactly four hours to transport a heart, which he has done, and transplant it into a waiting patient. He has used business aviation to accomplish that.