This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.
Industry advocates are continuing to push for further legislative aid and regulatory relief as business aviation operations and organizations continue to suffer under the Covid-19 pandemic, senior NBAA officials said during NBAA-VBACE.
Covid aid was among a number of issues addressed during a Legislative and Regulatory Hot Topics session held on the first day of NBAA-VBACE, with other areas covered including workforce development, the electronic pilot records database, and safety management systems (SMS).
“We are nowhere near where we were a year ago,” said Christa Luca, NBAA senior v-p of government affairs, regarding business aviation operations. She pointed to New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport as an example. Traditionally one of the busiest business aviation facilities, since June, operations have remained at about 50 percent of the year prior. While operations did see a bump in May after the trough in April, “we really haven't seen a lot of change in that [since] to indicate that we've come back.”
An informal poll hosted during the webinar appeared to back that up with more than 50 percent saying their operations are down and 11 percent saying they are still not operating any passenger flights. In response, Luca said, “That’s consistent with what we’re hearing anecdotally.”
She praised the CARES Act package approved last spring, saying the small business and commercial carrier payroll support programs “seemed to get our members through the toughest of times.” But as the pandemic has lingered and negotiations have continued on the next round of aid, “We want to make sure we are well-positioned to have any type of relief provided to our memberships as well,” Luca said. “We want to make sure that any and all tools are made available by Capitol Hill and the Administration.” That’s been a key focus for NBAA on Capitol Hill, she added.
But along with an aid package, NBAA has also continued to work with the FAA on regulatory relief measures, added Doug Carr, v-p of regulatory and international affairs for NBAA. Beginning in March and April, it became apparent that the ability to keep up with proficiency, training, and medicals was hampered by the restrictions and concerns surrounding travel, he said. The FAA had worked with industry to provide a series of extensions for various operational requirements.
Not unexpectedly, Carr said, the FAA has begun looking at when those extensions could wind down and is contemplating when the industry will have put new systems and processes in place to normalize operations to the extent possible. “So, we're starting to hear some amount of feedback from the FAA,” he said, adding NBAA has already asked for additional extensions but is looking at where it can drawdown. “I know the FAA put a lot of time and effort into getting these extensions approved and the justification for them, as time goes on, will get more and more difficult,” he said, but “we're going to keep pushing to get as much relief as we can.”
In the meantime, he cautioned, NBAA is keeping a watchful eye on international restrictions that continue to crop up as hotspots appear. “The best perspective right now is just stay tuned…Don't be surprised if last-minute restrictions really do interrupt your travel and be prepared with not only plan B [but] a couple more letters after that as well.”
As for workforce development, Luca said the pandemic has had a significant effect. The industry as a whole is behind on that issue. “We did not have enough people in the pipeline,” she said. “We were really in a bad place.” The pandemic, however, has created a “pause” on the workforce pressures, giving the industry an opportunity to catch up.
However, Luca cautioned that the industry must continue its outreach and advocacy in this area to be better positioned once the pandemic eases. She was encouraged about the progress on and strong support for House and Senate companion bills to enable public service campaigns to promote transportation career opportunities. The House bill was passed as a rider to a surface transportation bill and the Senate bill approved by the Senate Commerce Committee. While unsure if a final agreement would be reached this year, Luca said there appears to be sufficient momentum for action on it early next year.
Meanwhile, NBAA continues to gather data on the ramifications of the FAA electronic Pilot Records Database proposal released earlier this year. While the proposal had been long anticipated, Carr said, “the FAA really caught us by surprise” by the inclusion of corporate operations in the pilot record-keeping requirements.
He noted the campaign that NBAA and its members have waged to have the FAA rethink its approach are encouraged that FAA Administrator Steve Dickson is aware of the concerns. The FAA has indicated that it wants to move quickly on the rule, Carr said, adding it could come as soon as the end of this year or early next. “We remain very focused on it and we know it's a significant piece of rulemaking that doesn't offer a lot of benefit for our community.”
Carr further warned listeners in the webinar of an upcoming push to require SMS for Part 135 carriers and Part 145 maintenance operations. “SMS is high on the FAA’s agenda right now.” He noted the varied operations of Part 135 and expressed hope that FAA would recognize industry SMS programs that could be tailored to these operators rather than impose a Part 121 carrier-driven approach to 135 safety management.
“Now is an opportunity to figure out what works for us. How do we make something that actually brings value to us,” he said. “Let's just not comply with SMS because it's a mandate. Let's figure out how do we get some real safety benefit from it.”
Carr additionally discussed the industry’s push to expand a privacy program involving ADS-B beyond U.S. borders to Canada and other international regions, and Luca further highlighted the need to stay focused on sustainability even as operations have eased during the pandemic.
Looking to the future, Luca advised webinar listeners to expect movement on an infrastructure package on Capitol Hill, noting such packages tend to gain traction when the economy needs a boost. She added that the Biden Administration appears focused on more sustainability measures, while Carr anticipates further efforts from the FAA in the areas of advanced air mobility and unmanned aircraft systems.