NBAA Convention
NBAA Convention

Inside the NBAA

Awaiting takeoff on your business jet, you unexpectedly hear the engines spool down. Then the pilot delivers the news: air traffic control has cancelled your clearance due to congestion at the destination airport, likely causing a two-hour delay.

What to do? If your company is a member of the National Business Aviation Association, your pilots might be able to get you off the ground by calling its Air Traffic Services Desk at the Federal Aviation Administration’s ATC System Command Center. That’s what Jad Donaldson, director of aviation for Harley-Davidson Motor Company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, did in a situation like this.

“Our representative at the NBAA desk said there was weather in the [destination] area, all of the arrival slots were filled with airline traffic, and they weren’t allowing many GA aircraft in right now,” Donaldson recalls. “I told him that we were on the ramp, ready to go, and asked whether he could do anything for us. He quickly called back, saying that an airliner wasn’t going to use its arrival slot, and if we could be ready to take off in 20 minutes, he’d put our aircraft into that slot. I said, ‘no problem,’ got the clearance, and 20 minutes later we were wheels up. The entire delay was about 35 minutes, which was completely acceptable under the circumstances.”

The NBAA is one of only three non-FAA organizations (the others represent airline and military interests) allowed to staff a full-time desk at the FAA’s ATC Command Center. That says a lot about its power and status, which have been growing since 1947. That’s when the organization was launched as the Corporate Aircraft Owners Association. The founders were leaders of 18 large airplane-owning companies, including Bristol-Meyers, Burlington Mills, Corning Glass Works, General Electric, B.F. Goodrich, Hanes Hosiery Mills, and Reynolds Metals. These executives were concerned that business aviation would be deprioritized by regulators dealing with expanding airline, military, and light airplane traffic.

The NBAA’s annual convention draws more than 25,000 attendees. It has grown so big that it can be held only in Orlando, Florida, or in Las Vegas.

While originally based in New York City, the organization quickly grew in stature and influence to the point where the Civil Aeronautics Administration (forerunner to the FAA) suggested that it move to Washington, D.C., which it did in 1951. The association has changed its name a few times since then to reflect diversifying membership, but its continued presence in D.C. has allowed the NBAA to spread awareness of business aviation issues to lawmakers.

“Our ability to be present on Capitol Hill, in court, and participating in the regulatory process is fundamental to our ability to follow through on our mission statement, which is to create an environment that allows business aviation to thrive in the United States and around the world,” says Ed Bolen, the NBAA’s president and CEO since 2004. “A business aircraft is a sign of a well-managed company. Companies that use business aviation return more to shareholders than companies that do not. NBAA is constantly involved in helping people understand what business aviation is and why it’s important to our nation’s transportation system and the economy.”

The organization has worked with government on issues such as helping the FAA craft separate regulations for business aircraft versus airline operations; convincing Congress not to lump business aircraft with recreational vehicles like snowmobiles during the 1973 fuel crisis; keeping business aircraft flying during the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike; and fighting for or against FAA funding reform, depending on how the proposed legislation would affect its members. Whenever a Congressionally controlled issue is at stake, the NBAA calls on its members to help.

“The ability to make it easy for NBAA’s membership to participate in the political, legislative, and regulatory process has been very important,” says Bolen. “For example, when the Large Aircraft Security Program was introduced [in 2009], we asked our membership to comment to the docket and kept a punitive regulation from becoming a reality. When bad ideas are put forward—like privatizing the air traffic control system—we’ve been able to go to the community and see them respond in a very positive way, using software that NBAA has developed.”

Moreover, the association has expanded its mission to facilitate business aviation worldwide. A founding member of the International Business Aviation Council, it has assisted with the formation of business aviation associations or their trade shows in various areas of the globe, and still cohosts European and Asian versions of its annual convention (EBACE and ABACE).

What many NBAA members most appreciate, though, is that the association fights for them in Washington—and on local turf, such as when it argues in court for business aviation access to individual airports and airspace. For some, it’s a key reason they pay their dues.

“As a long-time NBAA participant, I know the value that NBAA brings to each flight department,” says Pat Dunn of Singapore-based FD Manager, which develops software for managing corporate flight departments. Dunn, who is also a corporate pilot, has been an NBAA member since 2007. “I know the necessity to have a voice in Washington to speak on our behalf. NBAA makes my life better as a business aviation operator throughout the world.”

Jay Mesinger, CEO of Mesinger Jet Sales in Colorado, agrees. An NBAA member since the early 1980s, Mesinger served on its board of directors and was a founding member of its Leadership Council. “Over the last 15 years, [advocacy] has taken on more relevance and importance,” Mesinger says. “In the early days, there were fewer threats to our growing industry domestically with respect to user fees or airspace. The airspace was less congested and there were fewer threats from airlines vying for the airspace. Thirty years ago, the [air traffic control] system wasn’t as old and there was less emphasis on modernization. Today the NBAA has shifted dramatically so its anchor is firmly planted in the legislative side of governmental affairs to deal with these issues that we didn’t have 30 years ago.”

Mesinger says that he often uses the Contact Congress area of the website to send messages to his Congressional representatives. The webpage includes links to email forms and tweets that can be automatically delivered to the member’s representative, plus a toll-free phone number that—when called—provides suggested talking points on the latest issue and uses the caller’s ZIP code to connect the member to the appropriate Congressional office.

“Contact Congress is a terrific tool that NBAA has made available to its members,” Mesinger says. “[The site has] pre-populated template letters that speak to certain issues—they allow you to customize those, of course—and with a click of a button you can send that message directly to your local representative. That’s an important piece of membership.”

What many members most appreciate is that the association fights for them in Washington, and on local turf. For some, it’s a key reason they pay their dues.

The NBAA has about 11,500 members, most of which are companies with corporate flight departments (corporate or business members) or businesses that derive more than 50 percent of their income supporting business aviation (associate members). While the website contains more than 500 pages of information about the organization and business aviation in general, approximately 40 pages are accessible only to members. These include myriad flight-department resources and a compensation survey as well as a member directory that serves as a networking tool and services marketplace. Membership also provides access to industry experts via more than 30 NBAA committees and the association’s Operations Service Group, safety information and awards, free and paid air-traffic services, professional-development courses and the Certified Aviation Manager program, and insurance plans.

For some members though, the most compelling reason to join the NBAA is to be associated with the organization that hosts one of the largest annual trade shows in the U.S. The NBAA’s Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition typically draws more than 25,000 attendees and 1,100 exhibitors and features about 100 aircraft on display. The show has grown so big—requiring more than one million square feet of exhibit space and a nearby airport for static display—that it can be held only in Orlando, Florida, or in Las Vegas.

Mesinger cites comradery, educational sessions, and exhibitors as his top three reasons for attending. “The education sessions that NBAA hosts are so well thought out,” he says. “They are targeted either to embrace the past year’s industry issues or to look at future issues and provide guidance. Also, the opportunity to see manufacturers and service providers bringing their wares to the convention…is vital.”

Harley-Davidson’s Donaldson sends several members of his corporate flight department to the convention and to the NBAA’s smaller conferences for schedulers and dispatchers, chief pilots, safety and maintenance personnel, and international operators.

“[NBAA involvement] keeps us right on the edge of what’s happening with legislation, regulation, training, and other hot topics in the industry,” Donaldson says. “When we have to move Harley-Davidson around the country or around the world, we have the resources available to get answers to questions quickly.”

Attorney Daniel Herr, a 15-year member of NBAA and owner of regularly attends the association’s annual convention and its Tax, Regulator & Risk Management Conference, which usually precedes the main event.

“The [tax conference] provides me with the opportunity to meet with other attorneys and professionals in the field and stay up to date with the changes and developments,” Herr says. “My practice is in a very small niche of the industry—fractional aircraft—and I tend to see the same issues over and over again. The issues affecting fractional aircraft are generally the same as those affecting whole aircraft, so attending the conference opens my mind to other issues and broadens my scope.”

NBAA members seeking additional connections with other members can also subscribe to a social network called Air Mail, which consists of more than 30 email lists dedicated to flight-department positions, aircraft, engine types, and other topics. Members can use the lists to post and answer questions, alert others to potential problems, post or find jobs, or post the availability of aircraft or crew for hire.

Joining the NBAA

The National Business Aviation Association offers four membership categories: corporate, business, associate (including airports, individuals, and companies that don’t own aircraft), and affiliate (foreign organizations).

Corporate and business members both own U.S.-registered aircraft that are primarily not-for-hire. The main difference: corporate members must use operations manuals, a formal maintenance program, and two professional pilots when passengers are on board. Business members, on the other hand, fly single-pilot and owner-operated aircraft. Both categories require pilots and crew members to complete annual proficiency training, a rule instituted in the 1960s to emphasize professionalism and safety.

Your membership category and other factors determine dues. As of July 2017, associate membership starts at $255 annually for a business aviation contractor, such as a contract pilot or flight attendant, while companies with associate memberships pay $525 to $2,655 per year, depending on their gross annual revenue. The fee structure for corporate and business categories is the same: a base fee of $205 plus $50 to $335 per aircraft depending on aircraft type, to a maximum annual fee of $5,330. The fees cover all employees of a member company, although businesses typically add only those affiliated with the aircraft or flight department to the association’s membership roster.

A few years ago, the NBAA initiated an $89 introductory membership, available for new members in any category, which allows full access to the association’s benefits for an entire company for one year. This may be one reason that, according to the association, its membership has increased by about 4 percent annually for the past several years. 

The NBAA’s Budget

The National Business Aviation Association generates the majority of its revenue from conferences and other events. In fiscal-year 2016, it took in $52.4 million, with $35.3 million coming from conventions, including its big Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition and similar events overseas; $7.2 million from other conferences, forums, and seminars; $6.3 million from membership dues; and $4.5 million from products and services such as air-traffic-services fees, sales of publications, affinity programs, and contributions. Expenses totaled $45.5 million, including $4.3 million on governmental and legislative affairs; $21.5 million related to conventions, conferences, forums, and seminars; and $19.7 million on operational expenses, marketing, communications, and other items. That left a surplus of $6.9 million.