The aviation industry faced unique challenges during the global pandemic, shared by both commercial and business aviation. Yet, as one of the toughest years in history is behind us, there are opportunities on the horizon for business aviation in 2021. We asked Edward Bolen, CEO of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) to share his perspective on the future trajectory of the industry, based on his active role within the community.

Prior to serving as CEO of NBAA for the past 16 years, Bolen was President and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) for eight years. He also served as a member of the Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry and chaired the Management Advisory Council to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for four years. Not only has Bolen’s career been dedicated to the aviation industry, but in his personal life, he is a recreational pilot.   

We asked Bolen to share with us his thoughts on how business aviation will evolve in 2021. Here’s what he had to say:

Connected Aviation Today (CAT) Editors: It’s hard to talk about 2021 without discussing the impact of 2020. Share one sentence that you’d use to sum up 2020 and how we move forward.

Edward Bolen: Without a doubt, 2020 was a year in which we all faced unique, daunting, and, at times, seemingly relentless challenges – but it was also a year marked by heroism, innovation, and resilience across our industry and throughout our nation. As a result of our work together, with resilience and determination, we’re emerging as a stronger industry.

CAT Editors: There are a lot of opportunities for the connected ecosystem to evolve in 2021. What areas do you believe will see the most change?

Bolen: While business aircraft have served as “offices in the sky” for decades, 2020 witnessed a notable expansion on this concept, as more business aircraft users than ever before utilized this option to remain connected, particularly in a socially distanced environment. That trend has converged with another one: the very definition of “the office” has changed. Employees now expect and rely on connectivity at all times, and in all places, including while in the air. This expectation is particularly pronounced among new entrants to business aviation, who are quickly recognizing its benefits – connectivity being key among those. We are meeting and exceeding these passengers’ expectations, helping lay the groundwork to retain those clients and customers, even when this crisis moment passes. 

It’s also worth noting that as we look to the future, inflight connectivity (IFC) will offer key safety advantages for flight crews and aircraft maintenance technicians, with key information about an aircraft and its systems available in real-time. I look forward to watching how these exciting technologies will continue to advance in 2021 and beyond.

CAT Editors: How will the technology, and adoption of technology, evolve in 2021 to help move the aviation industry forward in a post-COVID world?

Bolen: As we’ve seen the pandemic linger into the new year, some naysayers predict a slowdown in the historic pace of business aviation innovation and technology development. That downbeat outlook ignores the history of an industry that has continuously invested in forward-looking technologies and business models, in times both good and challenging. So it is, even in this ongoing COVID moment.

OEMs and startups are developing advanced air mobility (AAM) designs that are destined to transform transportation. The exploration of increasingly efficient electric-power aviation applications continues unabated. NBAA will continue to support these innovative technologies in 2021, most notably through our Emerging Technologies Committee.

We’ve also seen our industry unveil several initiatives for advancing the production, availability, and use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), a key step toward further reducing business aviation’s environmental footprint. Of course, NBAA has been a strong supporter of these efforts, including through our participation in the Business Aviation Coalition for Sustainable Aviation Fuel and through hosting the Virtual 2020 Business Aviation Sustainability Summit, which took place last September.

Along similar lines, NBAA has remained a staunch advocate for the FAA’s NextGen airspace modernization program, which is rooted in game-changing technologies. An agency official recently noted that 75 percent of those technologies are now online and in use. Once fully implemented, they hold the promise of moving to a safer, more efficient, and more sustainable aviation system.

CAT Editors: How can the industry collaborate to ensure it addresses the most important priorities in 2021?

Bolen: The business aviation community has a powerful tradition of coalescing around our highest priorities. We continually work together to enhance the safety of our industry, share best practices to maintain its security, and preserve access to airports and airspace, just to name a few examples.

The scope of these efforts ranges from the recently formed Air Charter Safety Alliance to combat illegal charter operations, to broader-interest groups such as the SAF Coalition I mentioned earlier.

Another effective effort through collaboration has been the one NBAA enjoys with our longstanding partner, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, on the No Plane No Gain advocacy campaign. For more than a decade, this program has informed policymakers and opinion leaders at the local, regional, and national levels about the importance of business aviation to citizens, companies, and communities across the country.

Of course, the industry’s collaborative efforts extend beyond our nation’s borders, which is as it should be, since business aviation transcends national borders. For example, NBAA is honored to stand alongside 14 other business aviation organizations from around the world in pursuing our shared priorities through the International Business Aviation Council and its presence before the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO.

In short, business aviation stands out from other industries with its track record of collaboration in meeting our common challenges and in pursuit of our shared goals. It’s an approach in which anyone within our industry can play an active role, and one that I believe will only strengthen in years to come.

CAT Editors: How would you sum up your 2021 predictions?

Bolen: While I’m not typically in the business of making predictions, I believe 2021 will be the year in which business aviation closes one of its most difficult chapters, looks toward new horizons, and leverages opportunities on every level – just as we have always done.

Further, I expect that, as challenging as this moment has been, the benefits of business aviation – a sanitized flying and working environment, the ability to reach a variety of destinations, and the continuing advances in connectivity for passengers and crew – position the industry to be a leading indicator of economic recovery, rather than a trailing indicator, and an industry that includes a significant number of new clients and customer entrants.

About Shany Seawright

A senior executive at Strategic Communications Group and Managing Editor of Connected Aviation Today, as well as other publications, Seawright oversees the editorial direction of the publication and managed the editorial staff.