NBAA’s Bolen Sees Optimism Amid Sector’s Mixed Messages

Ed Bolen
Credit: NBAA

Although the business aviation industry has suffered losses during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many reasons for optimism, Ed Bolen, National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) president and CEO, said on a keynote webinar during Business Aviation Week 2020, held by the Aviation Week Network. 

On the Oct. 5 webinar, Bolen described the scale of the challenge facing the sector and ran through some of what NBAA has been doing to offer support and leadership during this period of unprecedented challenge. 

 “We’ve tried to communicate with the community about what we understand to be the situation as we know it,” he began. “We’ve clearly gone through some very unexpected challenges—like ATC-zero situations, where we’ve lost the tower at places like Midway and Indianapolis—and we’ve had to get the word out and make people aware that we have a new operational environment that we need to adapt and adjust to. 

   “We’ve also been very focused legislatively,” he continued, “particularly with the CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security] Act, which, in Part 135 operations, has brought more than $700 million into our industry, provided some level of relief for general aviation operations, and of course has helped all businesses—whether in aviation or not—with the Payroll Protection Program. [NBAA has] also done a regulatory relief outreach. For example, we’ve worked closely with the FAA to be able to extend regulations and provide some additional time for people to get their training or their medicals done.

“So it’s been a comprehensive effort: communicate, legislate, regulate. All those things have been key to helping our industry find a way to survive this challenging environment, to adapt to the changes that are taking place, and hopefully position ourselves to go back to growth in the near future as we continue to learn more about this disease and how to operate through it.”

Another issue to contend with is what Bolen terms the “mixed message” around the sector. Some business aviation entities are seeing year-on-year gains, particularly over the summer, often because newcomers to the industry are choosing to fly privately, both to minimize the risks associated with COVID-19 and because commercial airlines may have suspended service on certain routes. Overall, however, the industry is still suffering. 

“I think there are reasons for optimism,” Bolen said, arguing that the influx of new customers for charter “gives us an opportunity to demonstrate what we know are the underlying values of business aviation. We know it’s extremely safe. We know it is enormously efficient. It allows teams of people to work en route. These inherent benefits are becoming better known and more fully appreciated by a wider audience, and I think, long term, that’s going to be very positive for us.”

There are a number of differences to how this crisis is playing out versus previous periods of disruption. Following the 2008 financial crisis, long-distance flying saw an increase, whereas today, travel restrictions mean the flights that are seeing greatest take-up tend to be shorter haul. “Instead of becoming more of a global marketplace, we’re becoming more of a domestic marketplace in the United States,” he said.

Nevertheless, he added, this is a global industry, and many of its key benefits are felt in the widest setting. And the particular nature of the pandemic implies that business aviation’s strengths make it uniquely well equipped to weather the current storms. 

“What we’re trying to communicate to government leaders, policymakers, opinion leaders and the general public all over the world is that this is a valuable mode of transportation that can create jobs, facilitate economic development, and promote health and safety,” he said. “This is a good industry, and it’s an essential industry, particularly at this time when we are operating with a global pandemic.”