Fast Five – Questions For Timothy R. Obitts

Timothy R. Obitts
Timothy R. Obitts, President & CEO, National Air Transportation Association (NATA), Washington, D.C.
Credit: NATA

A graduate of the California Western School of Law, Obitts was an attorney with Gammon & Grange, a national firm specializing in nonprofit and communications law, for 17 years, eventually becoming its managing partner. During that time, he was also corporate counsel and general counsel for many nonprofits and trade associations, handling a wide array of issues that affected their daily activities. Moreover, he lobbied legislators and staff members on Capitol Hill along with federal agencies. He also co-founded nonprofits and is a board member of several. He joined NATA as senior vice president in 2014, was promoted to chief operating officer in 2016, and was elevated to his current position this past January.

One month in office and COVID-19 strikes. Short honeymoon.

Obitts: We’ve been going from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. six days a week helping members and non-members alike. I have characterized NATA as a nimble association with a high impact, and we are really living up to that analogy. NATA has an excellent team all working from home and communicating effectively with one another using videoconferencing and other tools. Much of our time is spent advocating for relief for our members and then helping to explain those programs to people who are seeking to apply. My legal background has come in handy during this crisis in understanding the legislatives texts and in problem solving. Both our airport business and air charter committees have been extremely active. Everyone’s been hurting — some FBOs have lost 95% of their business. And while charter operators were busy at first bringing people home, everything came to a halt on Tuesday, March 17. It’s as if someone flipped a switch and turned everything off.

Have the CARES Act and Payroll Protection Programs helped?

Obitts: To a degree. But the big boys, the airlines, got the lion’s share of the money. The charter operators who filed their applications before the priority deadline got some help — about 76% of their payrolls, which is the same percentage that the Part 121 airlines received, and it’s an outright grant — which is quite helpful. But many Part 135 companies filed after the priority deadline, and we are working with Treasury to see what will happen to those applications. One person, a non-member, called to say his bank had messed up his application for protection and now he was going to have to fire 80% of his employees. It was quite emotional. I called him back the following day to check on him. Most general aviation airports received $30,000 or less under CARES, which is not enough for them to survive this downturn. Rural sections of the country depend on those airports and related services and they all are suffering.

Is there a way forward?

Obitts: We’re promoting a proposal that would deliver $2 billion in relief for general aviation airports and $5 billion to general aviation businesses. It would require recipients to maintain their payrolls and rehire furloughed workers through the end of the year. They need it.

Oil is now down to zero dollars. Will that help?

Obitts: Not really. Currently, the flight activity is limited, so few are buying avgas or Jet-A. My larger concern is whether the credit that fuel suppliers are extending operators and FBOs will dry up. No one knows at this point.

That’s certainly a dark assessment of things. Anything positive?

Obitts: Sure. Actually, people are starting to look at travel for May, waiting on restrictions to start easing. Our industry has proven that it is resilient. The convenience, cleanliness and safety of the charter and fractional operations, and the FBO facilities they use, are unmatched. So, I think there will actually be greater demand for their services than before the crisis. And another thing, in the face of these seemingly insurmountable challenges, you are seeing more and more of the better side of humanity revealed. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that this crisis has brought out so much positivity in so many people. We’re all in this together and everybody is seeking and trying to help each other.

William Garvey

Bill was Editor-in-Chief of Business & Commercial Aviation from 2000 to 2020. During his stewardship, the monthly magazine received scores of awards for editorial excellence.