Fast 5: Gulfstream President Talks Demand, Safety

Credit: Angus Batey

Gulfstream Aerospace President Mark Burns, a native of Savannah, Georgia, joined his local airframer as a CAD operator in 1983 and worked his way steadily up the ranks, learning about the whole business in roles that included work as a flight-test engineer, directorships in-service engineering and customer support, and a vice-presidency for transition during the period in the early 2000s when the company was acquired by General Dynamics.

Burns spoke with Business & Commercial Aviation during a visit to Farnborough, UK, on March 10, where the company hosted customers, local dignitaries and the media at the maintenance center it built and opened during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

You must be pleased to get back to traveling.  

In the last year I’ve maybe been to Europe three or four times, and I’ve got a lot of travel scheduled this summer. I’ll tell you, though, the things that we learned during COVID, how to work remotely and some of the tools that we have to be able to access customers around the world actually have been an improvement for us. I’m hopeful that this dialogue continues. I found it to be easier than I thought to access and work with customers remotely. It actually worked well for us.

That’s maybe a bit of a scary thought for a person who makes a living out of business travel. 

Well, I still think that, at the end of the day, when we’re doing a deal for anything or somebody’s doing their business, face to face still is important. I think that some of the legwork can be done remotely, but you still want to be face to face. It’s such a hybrid today with people’s business. We’re back to flying levels that we were pre-COVID now and the fleet continues to expand, obviously, for us. I think there’s been a structural shift for our client base. We sell airplanes in almost every corner of the world, and it continues to grow and grow every year. So, while there are tools that allow us to work hybrid and remote, I think there’s still a great deal of energy around the personal relationships associated with business.

One thing we’ve heard repeatedly over the last 18 months is that all those newcomers to private aviation—those who have begun using private flying for reasons of health and safety, primarily—will stay with the industry once the situation normalizes. Do you see current demand levels as sustainable? 

Most of our transactions are to individuals or companies—we don’t sell a lot into the fractional market. But I think this is sustainable. I think there’s been, even pre-COVID, a structural shift about understanding the benefits of airplane ownership. I believe we’ve made it very clear in our investment in the product that we’re creating a family of airplanes that gives customers choice. Whatever your mission is, we have developed an airplane that can do that mission efficiently. So, I think this is sustainable. COVID certainly accelerated it, but I think there’s a structural shift, and ownership now is regarded as a benefit.

You’ve talked about the family of aircraft, with eight development projects going on at once, and with the Symmetry cockpit that minimizes differences across each aircraft. In part, this was one of the areas that caused Boeing problems with the MAX, though that was in a very different product—but the other difference is that you’re a company led by an engineer. Is it that different philosophy that’s allowed you to do what you’ve done over the past 10 years? 

It’s a core of who we are. I think two things. Number one, we want to build the finest airplane in the world. That is our daily endeavor, and my background—part of that was accident investigation when I was much younger. It is something I think about quite frequently. I know that our team does as well, and I believe that attention to detail matters. So, as we build 150 or 200 airplanes and we continue to grow, that attention to quality is important to us. I tell everybody all the time; there’s safety and quality, and then schedule, in that order. And we work all of them very hard every day, but there are moments in time where, when the decision’s made, it’s always about safety, and then it’s quality, and then it’s the schedule. That’s ingrained in all of our people. Safety first, attention to detail, the quality of manufacturing, the expectation that we’re building the finest airplane in the world.

And then I think, too, the investment. We put a number of things into the airplane—active control sidesticks that is a first in this category of airplane. I believe that definitely improves safety. Predictive runway performance is something we’ve added to the airplanes. I believe that is eliminating a lot of the incidents that aviation has seen over the last five years. So, absolutely, it’s top of mind each and every day. 

The first thing that I do in the morning is read incident reports from customers and manufacturer, what happened overnight, are we paying the right attention to whatever that may be. So, I believe that differentiates us. I think safety is part of our culture. I don’t see it as hard. I believe it’s part of what we do. I still look at every airplane we built as ours in some ways, and I know some of the customers would probably disagree with me, but I feel that responsibility and I know our people do every day to make sure the fleet is safe.

You mention starting your day reading incident reports. I understand you sometimes pick up the phone and call the customer directly. 

I do. I do! Because I’m old, I know a lot of the customers that we’ve had through the years. I really think that’s a key element of retaining the customers you have. And we have built this incredible reputation through a lot of hard work by a lot of people, and I pay particular attention to retaining our customer base. I think one of the ways to do that is to provide great service. I’m a very small part of that, but I do think it’s helpful to keep a relationship with our customer base.

Angus Batey

Angus Batey has been contributing to various titles within the Aviation Week Network since 2009, reporting on topics ranging from defense and space to business aviation, advanced air mobility and cybersecurity.