The aviation industry missed its mark last year, says General Aviation Manufacturers Association President and CEO Pete Bunce. While lawmakers were weighing options for parceling out money for a stimulus plan, aviation industry leaders were unable to sell NextGen – the future of the airspace system -- as an important economic stimulus. “It was much easier to give dollars to shovel-ready projects,” he said yesterday during a Honeywell briefing in Orlando, Fla.
Bunce blames the aviation community for being unable to convince Congress that it was important to invest in NextGen. “We did not have a good story,” he said. NextGen wasn’t concrete enough. “It is so complicated enough [lawmakers] did not understand.” The plan wasn’t “robust enough,” and the industry didn’t have concrete costs, he said.
But Bunce is encouraged that the landscape is starting to change. Industry groups have made a concentrated effort to work with Congress and the Obama Administration on the importance of NextGen, and what steps could be taken to get there. As the Administration comes on board, key lawmakers, including those on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Senate Commerce Committee, will have a better case to win congressional support for increased investment. Leaders on both committees have stressed their commitment to doing what they can to jumpstart investments.
Convincing Congress and the White House to invest heavily in the new air traffic management system is only part of the equation. Convincing operators to equip may present the next big hurdle.
Operators appear motivated to get the latest technology in their cockpits: In the latest Honeywell Business Aviation Forecast, North American operators cited updated avionics as the second biggest driver behind their decisions to buy new aircraft. And, operators in every part of the world indicated better efficiency and operating costs were in the top five reasons to buy new aircraft.
But while recognizing efficiency is important, NextGen is still a fuzzy concept to many operators, industry leaders concede. Even if they understand the importance, operators don’t know what will be necessary to put in their aircraft. The government hasn’t set the requirements yet for the equipment that will be required.
This has made manufacturers hesitant to ramp up production on the equipment for fear that the government will go in a different direction. And it certainly is a hurdle for installation.
Aviation association heads have been stressing to Congress the importance of “incentivizing” operators to put NextGen-capable equipment in the cockpit – that is providing either federal support, tax breaks or some other means to encourage operators to upgrade their aircraft. Another discussion along those lines just took place a couple of days ago with House aviation subcommittee Chairman Jerry Costello (D-Ill.).
Convincing the rest of Congress to help pay for operators to equip their cockpits might be an uphill battle in times of tight budgets. Time will tell whether Congress will come on board with that too.