“Flying is like good music. It elevates the spirit and it's an exhilarating freedom. I love the machines, I love the aviation community. I used to own airplanes and have pilots flying them for me, but I finally realized they were having more fun than I was. ”
Bizav boosters fight back
Senators Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback-both Kansas Republicans who have held their jobs since 1996-sent a letter to President Obama earlier this year [see box] to express concern over what they called "misguided and reckless statements and policy suggestions affecting the general aviation industry." In separate interviews, we recently asked both senators about the letter and the President. We also talked about the state of the business aviation field-which plays a major role in Kansas' economy-and about the Congressional debate over whether the industry should help fund FAA operations with user fees.
What response have you had from President Obama's office to your letter?
Roberts: No response.
Do you think the president was playing politics with his comments or that he doesn't understand the industry?
Brownback: I think [the president] was just making a political jab at something he doesn't understand. It's not an industry he's had much association with, although I'm sure he's been in a lot of private jets.
Roberts: You know, presidents read what they read in 22-point letters on the cards in front of them and I think he did that. We would really look forward to a meeting with, if not the president, his personal staff and the staff involved with the budget. We'd say, "You're looking at 1.2 million people nationwide [employed in the business aviation industry, which adds] $150 billion to the economy." We'd say, "What we're doing here is very counterproductive and you're not really going to get anything for it unless you just want to play the perception game."
Do you believe corporations could have done a better job of getting the message out about the value of business aviation?
Brownback: It's tough to compete with the president and vice president's bully pulpit and it seems self-serving, but they [corporations] are pushing back. We're pushing back here and we're hopeful of getting this message out. I invited the new FAA administrator to come to Kansas and see the industry and I think he will.
Roberts: We worked overtime describing the benefits of general aviation last year in the Congress, trying to stop a user fee. General aviation said, yes, we'll pay what's necessary like everybody else but we don't
want a user fee.
Do you think general aviation's position will prevail in the debate over user fees?
Brownback: I think we've got a reasonable prospect of our position being held, but it's going to continue to be a battle.
Roberts: Everybody knows we have to modernize the air-traffic-control system. But [in the 2010 budget] there was a not-too-ambiguous reference to repealing aviation excise taxes and replacing those with direct user charges. We fought that fight once and won-by one vote, but we won. And we hope we can do that again. And we hope it doesn't come to that. I would hope we could say, "Look, let's not go down that road. That became very controversial, somewhat partisan, and it's very counterproductive."
A recent New York Times headline proclaimed, "Corporate jets are gone...It's the year of the downgrade." How do you turn around the public's perception of business jets?
Brownback: We've got to keep telling our story about how much of an export product we are. We are the global leader in this business that has been a very good contributor to our bottom line and will be in the future. So this is something we don't want to lose. These are the highest wage, highest skilled manufacturing jobs in the world.
Roberts: Well, [The New York Times] is going broke and we're not [in the business jet field]. Newspapers all over the country are in very rough times because the communications industry has come to a revolution. But business jets are not a thing of the past. They're the future.
Yes, but the public perceives business jets negatively now, especially since the Detroit automakers flew to Washington.
Roberts: I know that's the public perception. [Business jets] are an easy target. When [the Detroit auto CEOs] came to the House, I think they probably made a mistake in traveling in their private jets. But they can point out that that's the most inexpensive way that they can move people quickly in regards to decision-making all over the country. You know, last year, 85 percent of passengers on business aviation flights were basically midlevel managers and sales [and] repair employees. Had I been at the hearing, I would have asked [the Detroit CEOs] if it would have been preferable, considering all the criticism and where it came from, if they just had rode a bicycle.
What will it take to turn the tide of public opinion regarding business jets?
Brownback: I think it's going to take the overall economy turning around. But I think as that turns around, you'll see less focus on business aviation, as far as people throwing populist-type comments at it. [Meanwhile], you have to go to the companies that could use a business jet and show them the dollars-and-sense value of the product. I think that's really where you're going to turn it around. Otherwise, in this highly charged environment we're in, it's too easy of a poke for people to take. I don't think most people realize how many airports are not served by commercial aviation.
So how do you communicate things like that to the public?
Brownback: One thing I want to do is offer an amendment on the FAA reauthorization bill to do a commission on the global competitiveness of the U.S. aircraft industry. I just want to keep bringing it up in front of my colleagues-the importance of this industry.
Roberts: We just have to keep telling [the public]. Our numbers are few but it's like two frogs in a milk can. They make a hell of a racket, but you open it up and there are just two frogs.
Are most of the senators you talk to in your camp on this or do many of them seem to view corporate aircraft as unnecessary perks?
Brownback: My colleagues recognize that what I tell them is true, because a number of them have used private jets to get into places that aren't well served, or served, by commercial aviation. So they know how helpful and time saving the product is, even if they use the more heat-seeking rhetoric.
Roberts: I don't think they view corporate aircraft as unnecessary perks. Every one of them has manufacturing plants and small businesses [in their states] that have these aircraft. But we really have to work to make the case in the individual committees and jurisdictions, so we'll continue to do that. And we shouldn't forget that out in our country, we use business jets for what we call an air ambulance service, so the rural health-care-delivery system really depends on business aviation. The more things that you can bring up like that that are very positive...
Senator Roberts, you seem to make a distinction on your Web site between the terms "business aircraft" and "corporate jet."
Roberts: Right. If you use the word "corporate" today, it's almost a pejorative. With the economy the way it is and the way that we have been spending money in regards to TARP I and the stimulus bill and the Omnibus bill and the budget, that's enough to set anybody off in regards to big banks or big anything. But there's nothing wrong with a corporation. It's just a bunch of investors who have stock in a company. That's part of America, or at least it used to be before we got into all the government takeovers.
More than half the world's general aviation aircraft are manufactured in and around Wichita. How has the business jet downturn affected your local economy?
Brownback: We've lost a lot of jobs-in Wichita, about 9,000 in general aviation from Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft and Bombardier Learjet. That doesn't include indirect jobs at any of the suppliers.
Roberts: It's like a rollercoaster ride. We were up and then we were down after 9/11 and then we really made a great comeback and people were using business jets because it made sense. Then we hit this economic crisis and we also have an administration that has chosen to perjure [itself about] the industry. [But] if we can survive 9/11, maybe we can survive Obama.
What's your sense about when the business jet industry will improve?
Brownback: Everyone's hopeful we're seeing some green shoots now, but [the industry] lags the general economy. Going into this downturn, we had a big backlog of orders, and that's been very helpful. I'm sure that a number of them have been canceled, but a number are being built. But it looks very difficult for next year, when you don't have that set of orders in the system.
Roberts: It can't get much worse. There is quite a bit of feeling among the so-called economic experts and if you believe that and look at the market, there are some signs of recovery or at least a bottoming out. And if that is the case, that could be the foundation from which we start to build back. But you just don't know.