Business aviation leaders are relatively quiet when asked about the presidential election, saying both candidates face stark budget choices regardless of who gets into office. From an industry standpoint, their worries are less about who wins and more about the tough decisions that will need to be made once the election is over.
And while President Barack Obama has an uneven track record with the industry during his first four years, Mitt Romney has virtually none – both leaving questions about the direction they would take entering 2013.
Speeches early in Obama’s presidency linking corporate jet travel to excess led both the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) and Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer to urge the president to tone down his rhetoric and visit Wichita to get a better understanding of the business and general aviation industry. Then came his June 29, 2011 briefing – during which he mentioned millionaires, billionaires and corporate jet owners six times – drawing fire from dozens of mayors, the IAM, business and general aviation association heads and manufacturer CEOs.
“We have certainly seen that President Obama has a blind spot when it comes to the tremendous manufacturing impact general and business aviation brings to our country, as well as the vital role we play in supporting and creating jobs here in America,” says General Aviation Manufacturers Association President and CEO Pete Bunce.
GAMA and the other business aircraft alphabet groups waged a public relations campaign to improve the industry’s image at the highest levels. Whether that message resonated with Obama is unclear. But the alphabet groups agree that rhetoric likening business jets to toys for CEOs has quieted. “I hope it has [resonated],” says Eric Byer, vice president of government and industry affairs for the National Air Transportation Association. “Any president should recognize the value of general aviation to the community. All of the different functions it serves, and it all means jobs.”
In fact, in a survey conducted by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Government Affairs team and printed in the association’s AOPA Pilot magazine, Obama touts the importance of the industry. He calls the strength of the general aviation industry “a critical piece” to economic growth and competitiveness. The president also notes he has benefited from general aviation for years.
On related issues, Obama has offered controversial proposals such as the $100-per-flight user fee and an extension of depreciation schedules for business aircraft. At the same time, though, he has backed measures strongly supported by industry, including short-term 100% “bonus” depreciations schedules, increased funding for NextGen and a more collaborative, risk-based approach to general aviation security.
“We have worked with this administration on several general aviation initiatives,” Bunce notes.
While Obama’s first four years may give some insight into the next four should he win re-election, industry leaders have few specifics about Romney’s approach. Romney has focused on macro issues, and his role as Massachusetts governor has provided few clues as to how he would handle major industry issues.
In the AOPA survey, Romney echoes sentiments about general aviation that are similar to Obama’s: “I understand the immense benefits that this form of transportation provides to Americans, both for travel and leisure.”
A Romney administration likely would slow efforts on environmental regulation, such as the push to remove lead from aviation gasoline, Byer suggests, and it also may have a “pro-business” bent.
But industry leaders stress that their issues are largely bipartisan, and the election’s outcome likely will not sway major industry issues such as the $100-per-flight user fee proposal. “Our issues transcend politics,” notes National Business Aviation Association President and CEO Ed Bolen.
Regardless of the election results, industry leaders believe the president-elect must tackle unprecedented budget choices with the prospect of the budget penalty known as sequestration, Bolen says.
Sequestration, which mandates an automatic $1 trillion cut over the next decade, is a potential lose-lose situation, he notes. It was set up to be so painful that Congress would make difficult budget choices to avoid it. That’s where the $100-user-fee proposal becomes worrisome, he says. The Obama administration already supports it, and the plan would raise an estimated $7.4 billion over the next 10 years.
Obama remains committed to the fee, telling AOPA that it is designed “to reduce the deficit and more equitably share the cost of air traffic services.”
But industry leaders do not believe that a Romney win would take the fee proposal off the table. NATA’s Byer notes that every administration over the past three decades has proposed some sort of user fee. “User fees have been an apolitical topic. It’s hard to say whether Romney will support it or not.”
When asked by AOPA about user fees, Romney offered neither support nor opposition. Instead, he says spending is only part of the equation, and “eliminating burdensome regulations and working with the aviation industry to ensure that consumers are receiving the best service possible are equally important to keeping costs down.”
The budget decisions facing Washington, Bolen says, do not change with the election.
“There are tough decisions that need to be made, and given what’s at stake for GA and our economy, whoever takes the White House, both parties will have to work together,” says Bunce. “The broader budget issues are going to have an impact on general and business aviation just like every other industry in our country.”