Personal/Corporate

What Happens in Vegas . . .

By James T. McKenna | October 1, 2004

When aircraft operators gather at the annual convention of the National Business Aviation Assn., the main topic of conversation typically is where the business aviation market is headed. When they gather in Las Vegas this month for the 57th annual meeting, the primariy topic could well be: where is the NBAA headed?

More than 30,000 people are expected to attend that meeting Oct. 12-14. Among the more-than-1,000 companies exhibiting at the event will be key helicopter manufacturers such as AgustaWestland, American Eurocopter, Bell/Agusta, Bell Helicopter, Pratt & Whitney Canada, Rolls-Royce and Sikorsky. Vendors exhibiting range from Blue Sky Network, Boundary Layer Research, CAE Simuflite and FlightSafety International to Goodrich, Max-Viz and Smiths Aerospace.

The gathering comes amid perhaps the most tumultuous year in the group's history. Just a year ago, NBAA members convened to hear where their new president and CEO, Shelly Longmuir, planned to lead the association. Within six months, Longmuir and her handpicked no. 2, Robert S. Warren, were gone, having kicked up in their wake charges of mismanagement.

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Now another president and CEO, Edward S. Bolen, is in place. By necessity, he will have to explain to NBAA's more-than-7,700 member companies how he will settle down the world's leading business aviation trade group and gird it for the major challenges lying before it. Those challenges include security, general aviation access to airports and airspace, environment pressures and safety issues.

Longmuir was a departure for the NBAA. A senior lobbyist for United Airlines parent UAL Corp., her experience was largely in dealing with congressional staffers and regulators on matters related to large airline operations, not business aircraft ones. She quickly brought Warren on board as executive vice president, chief operating officer and corporate secretary. He previously had been a top lawyer for the Air Transport Assn., the main trade group for the U.S. airlines.

NBAA Chairman Donald E. Baldwin has said Longmuir was brought aboard in part to enhance the trade group's relations with Congress and federal agencies. Since September 11th prompted severe restrictions on general aviation operations throughout the United States--and particularly around Washington--improving working relationships with the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Secret Service has been a key goal for most GA groups.

But problems soon arose. By early this year, they'd become severe enough that two longtime, well-respected NBAA staff members, Robert P. Blouin, the senior vice president of operations, and Cassandra Bosco, head of communications, had tendered their resignations.

That and other problems prompted intensive deliberations at the board of directors' quarterly meeting, the result of which was Longmuir's ouster. At the same time that her departure was announced, the NBAA said Blouin and Bosco had rescinded their resignations. Along with Longmuir, Warren left. Baldwin took over as interim president and CEO while a search committee looked for a permanent replacement for Longmuir. Baldwin said the board had not seen the progress it was expecting in government affairs under her leadership.

(Blouin recently announced he was leaving the NBAA. Several weeks later, Pete West, the group's longtime lobbyist, also announced his departure.)

On his way out, Warren sent a letter to NBAA members saying Longmuir's departure would prevent NBAA from advancing a significant political agenda in Washington. He also challenged its financial management and urged the association's members to complain to their board of directors.

Warren's letter provoked a response from John Olcott, the longtime NBAA president that Longmuir had replaced. Olcott said Warren's arguments "reflect a deficiency of knowledge" of the NBAA. He said financial management of the association was sufficiently prudent to triple the group's revenue in the 10 or so years prior to Longmuir and Warren coming on board and its member increased more than two-fold. In the nine months after they joined, Olcott said, staff morale at the NBAA plummeted.

For his part, Bolen said he is "grateful and humbled to have been selected" to lead the NBAA. He is an experienced and immensely well-respected player in Washington. Having served since 1996 as president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Assn., he has been deeply involved in all major general aviation issues and has developed strong working relationships with federal officials who shape U.S. general aviation policies.

Since every GAMA member also is a member of the NBAA, he said that he has had the opportunity to work closely with the NBAA's staff and its board of directors on many issues of common interest. "I can't imagine a better way to have prepared for my new job," he added, "than through the experience gained in my old one."

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