“Time is our most precious commodity, and there are conveniences that wealth brings to essentially get you more time. —retired Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, explaining why he commutes via private jet from his Seattle home to watch games of the Los Angeles Clippers, the basketball team he bought last year for $2 billion. ”
Listen up, aircraft owners
Simply put, air charter is the front door for all things at the business aircraft level in general aviation. It precedes fractional ownership. It stimulates full aircraft ownership. The jet card programs couldn't exist without it. And for the manufacturers it represents a free "demo" program for their products.
As charter becomes economically and legally untenable, everybody else will have to absorb the cost in extra sales expense and lost business. We can't afford that. But to save air charter, we need to understand its constituent pieces, the most important of which is the aircraft owner, without whom we wouldn't have much of a ride. So listen up, dear reader. If you own an aircraft, we need your help.
BJT is not a political magazine. But if politics currently overshadows everything else in aviation, from new products and services to economics, then politics demands attention. And the politics at the IRS, FAA and DOT and their interference with general aviation have, in the opinion of this writer, reached an historic low that threatens the existence of air charter as an instrument for operating corporate jets.
Jeff Wieand wrote an article for this magazine discussing the negative impact of the FAA's "new interpretation" of operational control pursuant to the Teterboro crash of 2005. [See "New FAA Rules Rattle the Charter Industry," April/May 2007, page 58.-Ed.] What he didn't mention was that the charter industry had publicly asked the FAA for a new interpretation as far back as 1998, and never got it because it threatened someone's career.
Now we have the furor in Congress over the FAA's reauthorization bill and the user-fee issue. Lies piled upon lies are spun and circulated by the airlines with the encouragement of the FAA, in a shameless effort to deceive the flying public and cultivate outrage and jealousy toward all us "fat cats" who would dare to own and operate an airplane.
Add to that the FAA's recent interpretation of "scheduled service," which questions whether occupied deadheads-along with the services that specialize in them-will remain legal. Though not a safety issue, this became the sole focus of the FAA's presentation at a recent association gathering in Washington. It is nothing more than acquiescence to the demands of the scheduled airlines with whom the Administrator has developed a partnership for securing her 2007-11 financial authorization. An unholy alliance if ever there were one, this joint venture of the FAA and the airlines should no longer be countenanced by any of us.
Some time ago, the IRS' rulings on personal use of corporate aircraft undercut the financial attractiveness of airplane ownership. The IRS succeeded in this area, while a 1980s effort to tax frequent flier miles failed miserably because it affected the general public. Lesson learned? Minorities usually lose in politics-even "fat cats."
Arbitrary harassment by our agencies has become commonplace: witness the FAA's egregiously heavy-handed "investigation" in the last six months of a major aircraft management firm and its refusal to disclose its purpose. The Department of Transportation has been harassing and penalizing charter brokers as "illegal indirect carriers" for the last several years, with no discrimination of good broker versus bad. (The latest casualty was Internet broker OneSky, which was recently fined $50,000 for a presentation that had long since been changed to conform to DOT standards.)
While it's tempting to revisit each of these as separate news issues, the more compelling question that begs an answer is what are we going to do in general?
With respect to the management company under fire, one of its executives suggested that the operation wasn't getting much help from the owners, who were loathe to "spend their political capital" with their congressional representatives about issues affecting only their airplanes. While conventionally practical, the fallacy of this attitude would be that as agency control gathers momentum, it taxes the ability of Congress to fight back. And at the big-picture level, it's not always possible to predict the priorities for maintaining a compliant democratic government. Push back early or get trampled later is a far safer rule of thumb.
If the FAA has a problem with certain deviations from regulation by aviation companies, we should have a problem with its wholesale abandonment of articulate regulations. If the FAA finds fault with charter operators' lack of "operational control" over leased corporate aircraft, what of the obvious lack of operational control by the FAA in Washington over its district offices, which have now come to a standstill about providing all manner of approvals that keep us in business? (As a side note, the "operational control" issue has consumed a disgraceful two and a half years of agency time without complete resolution yet.)
Congress historically has been afraid to question the expertise of agencies dedicated to public safety, lest it get caught up in the politics of an accident. But none of our agencies focuses exclusively on safety, nor are they the only safety experts available.
The nature of U.S. federal agencies is deplorably political, and it's time we did something about it. Here is the real "user fee": making an individual contribution as a pilot, aircraft owner or charter operator to realign that part of our government that deals with aviation. And this "user fee" is one we should be willing to pay, because we're the only parties qualified to do so. Forcing the government to respect due process is arguably more important than letting it have full rein on the thin excuse that it can reduce the accident rate to zero (which is questionable at best).
We need a DOT that understands the importance of the transportation infrastructure and recognizes that commerce, not bureaucracy, will allow it to thrive. It needs to provide a balance of solutions to our problems, not just penalize us for our transgressions.
We need an FAA chaired by an Administrator who understands pilots, aircraft and the aviation system on day one, without requiring on-the-job training from all of us. We need an FAA that is clear and consistent and that stops ruling by policy letter and regulates the way it is supposed to. We should demand these things.
If Congress is too busy, too distracted or too partisan to go fetch, then it had better move over and let us in the door. We need these changes now. After all, we pay the bills around here. And we defer this reminder at our peril.