General Aviation in a Stall, Jeopardizing Thousands of Jobs in Ohio
July 31, 2009
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  • Posted by kkroll

    March 14, 2009

    Marvin Fong/The Plain DealerVaughn West prepares to move a turboprop Pilatus PC-12 at the Akron Fulton Airport. In the background is an air dock where Goodyear’s first lighter-than-air blimps were housed. General aviation– all flying except by the military and commercial airlines — is expected to drop 15 percent in Ohio this year.

    The flat economy and populist aversion to private jets as a symbol of corporate excess have put general aviation into a tailspin.

    Ohio — with deep roots in aviation, studded with more airports than almost anywhere in the country — is being swept into the decline.

    About 15 percent of jobs and revenue tied to general aviation in Ohio will vanish this year, the Ohio Aviation Association estimates. That’s on top of a 10 percent slide in general aviation last year, mostly because of fuel costs.

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    Though the numbers are estimates, it’s probably safe to say that Ohio stands to lose hundreds if not thousands of jobs and tens of millions in revenue connected to the general-aviation sector — which is made up all flying aside from commercial airline and military operations.

    “People aren’t investing in corporate jets,” said Miriam Lowe at Alcoa Inc.’s Cleveland Works, which makes aluminum aircraft components. “It’s being hammered, basically.”

    Though business use is down, student training and private flying in single- and twin-engine aircraft is holding steady at Ohio State University Airport, director Doug Hammon said.

    “It’s not bad, surprisingly,” said Hammon, also president of the aviation association. “We thought that would be hit the hardest.”

    But a 2009 dropoff in corporate use, held somewhat at bay for now by a backlog on orders for aircraft and parts, will accelerate later this year, said Isaac Nettey, head of the aviation program at Kent State University and associate dean of the College of Technology.

    A recent study for the Ohio Department of Transportation found that general aviation accounted for 17,000 jobs in Ohio, $498 million in payroll and $1.7 billion in economic activity,

    Ohio’s 105 public-use airports — seven big ones used by airlines and 98 general-aviation fields — support everything from flight schools to cargo companies, fuel suppliers and nearby restaurants.

    About two-thirds of general aviation is business-related — transporting supply parts and shuttling managers and sales representatives between plants and customers. The rest is recreational flying or pilot training.

    In Ohio, an ODOT survey of 2,400 businesses found that access to a general-aviation airport ranked among the top 10 reasons for choice of location. More than a third of the companies said they owned, leased or chartered planes.

    Most businesses use single- and twin-engine propeller and turboprop aircraft or small to midsize jets, Cessna said in an ad campaign it launched in February to counter what it called “misinformation” about general aviation. “Timidity didn’t get you this far,” the ad drive said. “True visionaries will continue to fly.”

    The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, on a promotional Web site, downplays the poshy segment of private air travel: “Small airplanes are safe and comfortable, but few are luxurious ‘sky yachts’ being driven around by cigar-smoking fat cats.”

    Use of corporate jets took a bruising when Detroit’s auto executives flew to Washington on sleek Gulfstreams to ask Congress for a $25 billion bailout. One congressman said that it was almost like seeing a guy show up at a soup kitchen in a top that and tuxedo.

    Backlash from that blunder piled on top of a cyclical trend in which companies eliminate flight departments and cut back on chartered air service during down economies. At the same time, the deepening recession is clipping aircraft and parts orders, fuel sales and another big segment of general aviation, recreational flying.

    It’s no wonder, then, that general-aviation operators are feeling sensitive about their industry.

    “It’s not Airport Med here. There’s business going on. It’s big business for the state of Ohio,” said Marla Elliott, treasurer of the Ohio Aviation Association and manager of the Knox County Regional Airport in central Ohio.

    The talk among fliers at the Knox airport is that the fallout from the Big Three fiasco “has put general aviation back 20 years,” Elliott said.

    “The flippant remarks, yes, it got a lot of press,” she said. “But I ask you, did we really think it through?”

    Cessna notes that general aviation employs 1.2 million people in the United States and contributes $150 billion a year to the economy. The manufacture of general-aviation aircraft is concentrated in the United States, at Cessna and Hawker Beechcraft hubs in Wichita, Kan.

    Corporate jet use traditionally stayed out of the limelight because executives by nature tend to be discreet, said Kent State’s Nettey. Now it’s in the spotlight, and the outrage factor — but especially the lousy economy — has reshaped corporate plans.

    Citigroup Inc., which is getting a $45 billion public bailout, decided last month not to take delivery of a new jet after the Obama administration criticized the purchase. General Motors and Ford shut down their flight departments. Time Warner sold its jets. Starbucks trimmed its fleet.

    The General Aviation Manufacturers Association said sales of general-aviation aircraft fell in 2008 for the first time in five years. The decline was concentrated in small piston-driven models — Cessnas and Pipers — down 20 percent. But shipments of more-costly turboprops and jets are expected to drop this year. Gulfstream announced this month that it’s laying off 1,200 workers and furloughing 1,500 more for five weeks.

    Locally, the collapsing market for private air travel hit Flight Options, a fractional jet ownership company at Cuyahoga County Airport that laid off 63 pilots and 14 maintenance workers in January.

    Business is down at Columbus-based NetJets, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, but the pilots union there has no word of impending furloughs.

    Suppliers are being pinched, too. Eaton Corp. reports soft demand for parts for business jets and other private planes. Alcoa’s Cleveland Works used to be buffered from cyclical slumps: When sales of aluminum car wheels fell, aerospace sales rose.

    “But in this market it’s tough all the way around,” spokeswoman Lowes said.

    Nettey expects the contraction in general aviation to eventually ease, with the sector even helping the economy dig out of its deep trough.

    The efficiencies for executives are too big to keep general aviation down, he said. Also in its favor: a possible infusion of federal stimulus money to upgrade runways; low fuel costs; and the migration of work to rural and small towns as they get high-speed Internet access.

    At Flight Options, union president Mat Slinghoff looks for corporate aviation to be on the leading edge of the rebound that is somewhere over the horizon.

    “When you think about it, executives are going to have to fly around and make deals,” he said.

    Date: 2009-03-14