The terrorist attacks of 11 September dealt a devastating blow to business aviation. The industry was already reeling from a worldwide economic recession that was shrinking manufacturer orderbooks and crippling the fortunes of companies and individuals - so much so that some began to question the existence of a business aircraft on their balance sheets during such cost-conscious times.
"Aircraft orders were already low before 11 September, but they took a 30% hit in 2002 and didn't start to stabilise until later the following year," says Jens Hennig, director of operations for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA).
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks all privately owned aircraft were grounded for up to 10 days and flights of foreign-registered aircraft into the USA were banned. Ed Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association, says the effects of the airspace clampdown "rippled through all sectors of the industry - aircraft manufacturers, aviation fuel companies, maintenance shops, fixed-base operators and flight schools".
|All privately owned aircraft were grounded in the aftermath of 11 September|
Industry trade bodies claim that the restrictions cost the US industry alone around $400 million in lost revenues, most of which has now been repaid through compensation packages.
The immediate knock-on effect of the travel chaos was felt by the charter operators, which experienced a short-term spike in demand, particularly from the plethora of corporate flight departments which, with their aircraft grounded, were forced to seek alternative travel methods for their time- and safety-conscious executives.
"The attraction of business jets has always been their flexibility. The appeal of being able to fly at several hours' notice was highlighted by the frustration of taking internal US flights post-11 September with the heightened security measures and long delays," says Bolen.
The first routes cut by the airlines were from secondary airports, which made business travel between minor cities a lot more wearisome, Bolen adds. Added to this was the perception that business jets, either wholly owned, part of a fractional programme or chartered, offer more protection against the threat of hijacking than commercial aircraft. "It is certainly more comforting to know your travelling companions," Bolen says
Fractional ownership programmes were a major beneficiary of the post-terrorism market, given the lead time on new aircraft in 2001 and the sensitivity surrounding corporate jet ownership when company budgets were being squeezed and so many employees laid off.
Fractionals and charter companies rose to the challenge. They introduced innovative block charter programmes, which reduced the impact of the economic slowdown on their businesses because they provided a safety net for companies and individuals who had planned to withdraw from the ownership programme. The block charters also lowered the cost of entry to business aviation. Five years on, these programmes have become indispensable for fractionals and charter operators and have drawn large numbers of first-time users into the market. "Companies had to weigh up the cost of aircraft ownership against security and employee safety, and there was a strong case for using business aircraft in the wake of the terrorist attacks," Bolen says.
That said, business aircraft operators faced a barrage of mandatory airport and airspace security restrictions, many of which are still in place. These include enhanced screening procedures at airports, a host of temporary flight restrictions and the introduction of an air defence identification zone within a 25km (15 miles) radius of Washington DC, which until recently barred all business and general aviation aircraft from entering downtown Reagan National airport, a popular destination for business travellers. International flights with aircraft weighing less than 45,400kg (100,000lb) were until late last month barred from entering US airspace unless they had obtained a waiver from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) or had entered the country via one of nine portal (safe) countries, including Canada.
Bowing to pressure
The US Federal Aviation Administration has bowed to pressure from the business aviation community to cancel the waiver and portal country requirement, which it dubbed "unnecessary and redundant". Although operators of flights bound for the USA are still required to file a flight plan, have an operational Mode C transponder and continuously squawk an air traffic control (ATC)-issued transponder code, as well as maintain two-way communications with ATC, the industry says the move by the FAA is positive.
"After 11 September it was a tough time for our community," says Brian Riley, GAMA vice-president of government affairs. "We felt we were working in a vacuum. We would knock on the door of the newly established TSA, but it would never open," he adds. Riley says there was a heavy-handed approach towards the community with the imposition of a number of unnecessary no-fly zones and airport security procedures "and yet none would listen to us". Riley says it took two years after 11 September to establish a working relationship with the TSA. "We are now able to work co-operatively and are finding workable solutions to many of the security issues, but there still aren't enough resources within the TSA committed to our sector of the industry," Riley says. Unfettered access for business aviation to Washington Reagan remains a key obstacle for operators. While access to the airport is permitted, albeit for approved operators only, the TSA has placed such onerous restrictions on admittance that many operators opt to fly elsewhere.
To fly to National, operators must have an armed guard on the aircraft, give 48h notice to use the airport, vet passengers and flightcrew in advance, and access the airport only via 16 US portal cities.
The industry has worked diligently since 11 September to implement a raft of government-imposed compulsory measures, not least two dedicated security programmes - the Twelve-Five Standard, which requires commercial air-taxi operators that use aircraft with a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 5,675kg (12,500lb) to comply with a number of new standards including a criminal records check and staff finger printing, and the Private Charter Standard. A similar programme is aimed at on-demand operators of private charter aircraft with an MTOW of up to 43,000kg.
Voluntary programmes have also been developed by the industry, including Airport Watch, a scheme designed by the Airport Owners and Pilots Association to further enhance the efficiency and safety of its operations. Bolen says: "Our goal, even before 11 September, is to be secure and viable and not become over-burdened by regulation that could undermine the advantages of business aircraft travel."
Bolen says: "Although the operating environment for business aviation has eased since 11 September and aircraft orders are once again at record levels, we are reminded every day that we are operating in a very different world and things will never be the same again."