I attended the NBAA Leadership Conference in Dallas last week with about 400 other attendees, and the experience was fantastic. It was gratifying to see so many people in the room together again, and their collective energy was amazing.
At the conference, NBAA president Ed Bolen also kicked off the association’s 75th anniversary, which was officially this past Sunday. It certainly hit home that what began as a group of only 19 member companies is now considered a leading force in our industry.
Not only is NBAA responsible for creating a unified voice within business aviation that continuously raises the bar for safety and professionalism, but it is also moving ever forward with innovative programs and technologies.
I found myself contemplating how far we’ve come in the past 75 years and how much we’ve evolved. Back then, it was exclusively white males in the room. But at the recent conference, I found myself among a much more diverse group, representing all ages, genders, and races.
To emphasize that point, NBAA invited Jess King as the final motivational speaker. She’s a senior fitness instructor at Peloton and an open member of the LGBTQ+ community. King shared her journey of motivating hundreds of thousands of people through fitness, with a very powerful leadership message: when you love yourself first, others will follow.
Growing up, my mom—Janice Barden, who founded our company, Aviation Personnel International—attended the NBAA conventions. At the time she was one of the few, if not only, female professionals who attended the convention. Highlighting this fact, it was often said that speakers would address the audience as “gentlemen and Jan.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, the convention was quite the extravaganza. There were black-tie events at night and special tours and luncheons created for attendees’ wives. They were arranged so that spouses would be entertained while their husbands attended the actual meetings.
In fact, for NBAA’s 25th anniversary, all members’ wives received a silver charm bracelet, with charms donated by vendors. My mom asked the NBAA chairman, “Don’t I get one too?” They had not thought to include her, their female peer, in the gifting. And when she brought it home, I was in awe of this piece of jewelry. I begged her to let me take it to “show and tell” at school.
UNITY OF VOICE
And now, 50 years later, NBAA is championing its unified industry “voice” to speak out on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I). My, how we’ve changed now that women are a full-fledged segment of the industry. And, by the way, there’s no more token jewelry—we’re on far more equal footing.
I applaud the organizers of this year’s NBAA Leadership Conference for putting a focus on DE&I as part of their “Return to Service” theme. There were many inspiring speakers who had the audience in rapt attention.
One of them was Anne Palmer, the daughter of a Tuskegee Airman. She was there with six students of the newly launched RedTail Flight Academy, the aim of which is to “diversify the sky.”
I was also extremely proud of my API colleague, Jennifer Pickerel. She, along with Josh Mesinger of Mesinger Jet Sales, co-presented on the topic of what it means to build a culture of inclusivity. I learn something new about inclusion from her every day.
It’s a fact: business aviation has grown up a lot in 75 years. But it’s also true that our industry still has a long way to go. That’s especially true when it comes to being inclusive and welcoming of people of color, women, LGBTQ+, caregivers, and anyone who feels they are “other.” As we so pointedly learned last week, there’s always more to do in this regard.
One of the challenges we face is changing this statistic from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: 93 percent of U.S. pilots are white men. New organizations in our industry, such as the RedTail Flight Academy in Windsor, New York, are aiming to do precisely that.
So, with the great satisfaction and renewed sense of purpose gained at the Leadership Conference, I first want to raise a toast to NBAA and the past three-quarters of a century of achievement this remarkable organization has accumulated.
Today, I own that special bracelet I spoke of and often wear it to industry events. I honor it as a symbol of the past, and when I look around the room at NBAA events today, I see a far different industry, with women at the table and the podium.
As we embark on the next 75 years of business aviation, I ask you to join me on a mission to, as Palmer said, “leave an indelible mark in our lifetime” on this industry.
Together, let’s work on attracting and retaining a workforce that represents our global travelers, and create a legacy of which we can truly be proud.
Sheryl Barden, CAM, is the president and CEO of Aviation Personnel International, the longest-running recruiting and HR consulting firm exclusively serving business aviation. A thought leader on all things related to business aviation professionals, Barden is a former member of NBAA’s board of directors and currently serves on the NBAA advisory council.