Reflecting on the Singapore Conference

I just returned from Singapore, where I attended the ACI Asia Pacific annual conference.  My colleague, Patti Chau, does a great job there as Regional Director and they put on a great conference.  I was honored to have been asked to moderate the final panel of the meeting, the CEO Forum.  The CEOs of San Diego, Sydney, Athens and Singapore airports were on the panel, along with Angela Gittens, Director General of ACI World.

Marina Bay Sands at dusk

Singapore is a terrific place to visit.  It still maintains a certain influence from the British colonial period but is also unmistakably Asian.  There are so many new and exciting things going on there, but the history of the place, and its many cultures, are found everywhere you look.  It is famous for its street food, and I can tell you that it is wonderful.  We took a couple of boat rides on the river, one at night and one during the day.  I was amazed at how different the city looked on the two rides, and how beautiful it was each time.  From tea at the Raffles Hotel to lunch on the roof of the Marina Bay Sands; from roaming the Botanical Gardens to touring Chinatown, I highly recommend a trip to Singapore.

The CEO Panel: (left to right) Yiannis Paraschis, CEO of Athens and Chair of ACI World; Kerrie Mather, CEO of Sydney; Lee Seow Hiang, CEO of Singapore; Angela Gittens, ACI Director General; Thella Bowens, CEO of San Diego and Chair of ACI-NA; and myself.

As for the conference, a real highlight was the keynote speech by Philip Chen, former CEO of Cathay Pacific Airlines.  His speech was full of substance and inspiration, made even more remarkable by the fact that a previous speaker had, by accident, removed his prepared remarks from the podium.  Chen talked about the pace of change, and the role of aviation.  He talked about how people throughout the region were planning for the dynamic future to come, and those who do not are doomed to fail.  This brought to mind the speech I gave recently in Denver, where I pointed out that U.S. airlines and the U.S. government seem content to ride with what we have and are neglecting this competitive challenge.  I asked him about this, which led to a morning of engaging conversation.  He even told a William Henry Harrison joke.  Anyone who can joke about our shortest serving president has the admiration of this presidential history geek.  But even more, his message is one we ignore at our peril, and we in the United States are right in the middle of doing so.

Indeed, this was confirmed throughout the days I spent in Singapore.  I heard the same message over and over again.  The global aviation market is growing, it is a global industry and those who ignore that are writing a dim future for themselves.  Some who heard, or heard about, the Denver speech came up to me to make this comment.

It may make some feel good to think that the U.S. is a “mature” aviation market so we shouldn’t invest in anything new.   But as I’ve said before, we risk making the same mistake steel and auto makers made a half century ago, mistakes which led them to a generation of protectionism as their only means of survival.  I do not want to see such a future for U.S. aviation.  Right now, considering the path we are on, I am not optimistic.

Something Congress Can Do Right Now

The last year or so has been a tough one for aviation, at least from a policy point of view.  We had numerous, frustrating short-term extensions of the FAA authorization, adding up to twenty-three in all.  One time the Congress couldn’t even agree on an extension and closed the FAA down for a couple of weeks, delaying projects all over the country and resulting in thousands of layoffs.

When a bill was finally passed about the best you could say was that at least we would have some stability.  But it will result in less investment in aviation infrastructure and will delay the day when the traveling public will realize the full benefit of NextGen.

What  a year!  We need to do better.

Here is something Congress can do, right now.  Michael Huerta was nominated several months ago for a full five year term as FAA Administrator.  When he was nominated I issued a statement strongly supporting his confirmation and I feel that way even more strongly today.  The law calls for a five-year term to take this appointment out of the purely political realm, and it should be treated that way. Michael has done a great job leading FAA since being named on an acting basis.  He knows the agency and the issues and has the full confidence of the entire aviation community.  His work on NextGen is critically important for the future of both airports and airlines.

So, US Senate, please confirm Michael Huerta right away so the FAA and the aviation community can get on with the business of building a twenty-first century air transportation system.

Babbitt, Katzenbach: My Thoughts

I wanted to write today about two people I admire greatly.

First is Randy Babbitt.  I first met Randy when he was President of the Air Line Pilots Association, in 1993.  President Clinton had appointed him to a commission chaired by my former boss, former Virginia Governor Gerald L. Baliles (as an aside, he now runs the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, they’ve just produced a very important report, Are We There Yet:  Selling Americans on Transportation, which I recommend highly).

I was the Clinton/Baliles Commission’s executive director. I worked closely with Randy and found that he was always in search of new and better ways to help lead the aviation industry into the future.  He took positions on some issues, like foreign investment, that were surprising and constructive.  He was a major part of the commission’s success.  And in the years following we worked together on a wide variety of issues.

When President Obama appointed him to head the FAA I felt it was a job for which Randy had prepared his whole career.  We’ve had some fine people head the FAA during my time, but I don’t think anyone was better prepared.  When the events of late last year unfolded, his being pulled over and brought in and then leaving FAA, it was a tough day for all of us.  When I had a chance to sit with Randy and find out what really happened, I was angry.  As we all now know, and as that judge saw for himself on the video, this is something that never should have happened.  Whether it was a mistake by the officer or a flaw in the system or whatever, he should not have been pulled over, he should not have been brought in, and he should still be running the FAA.

As my folks always told me, life is not fair.  But I am so glad that Randy has been, rightly, exonerated, and that the aviation industry will once again be able to rely on his experience and wisdom.

Second, is Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, who passed away this week at the age of 90.  Katzenbach was a key member of JFK’s Justice Department and is the guy who faced down Gov. George Wallace, literally, at the schoolhouse door.  He played an indispensable role in the civil rights advances of the 1960’s, and in the Johnson Administration was made Attorney General.  Later, he moved over to the State Department as an Undersecretary; the kind of move that would be impossible in today’s Washington, but back then people made such moves for the good of the country. While there, he played a role in the effort to change the course of our Vietnam policy; an effort that was overwhelmed by bigger forces.

In the end, Katzenbach made a huge difference in the life of our country for years to come.  His book, “Some Of It Was Fun” is an excellent read; I recommend it highly. He was one of those people whose name is perhaps not widely known but who made a huge difference that history will long remember.  Nicholas deB Katzenbach.  RIP.