Business Aviation Insider

Business aviation connects a union leader to his membership.

April 3, 2012

Back in 2009, as the nation was in the grip of the worst recession since the Great Depression, R. Thomas Buffenbarger, international president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), took the stage at the Opening General Session of NBAA’s Annual Meeting & Convention and gave one of the most stirring pro-industry speeches in recent memory.

When Buffenbarger first stepped to the microphone, what many who would hear his call to arms didn’t initially understand was that he was not simply defending business aviation in order to save the jobs of union members; his organization actually uses a Bombardier Learjet 60 to conduct its business more efficiently and productively. IAM’s airplane has traveled to every U.S. state and Canadian province, as well as to 25 countries, in support of the interests of the nearly 700,000 workers that the organization represents.

Without knowing that IAM was an operator of a business aircraft, it was understandable if many of those attending the 2009 Convention were surprised that Buffenbarger had been asked to speak to NBAA Members about the importance of business aviation. After all, his union – which represents aviation and aerospace workers, including those who build business aircraft – was not considered by some to be a natural ally of an organization whose Members include business aircraft operators.

However, the IAM chief explained it candidly and succinctly:

“In normal times, we face each other across a negotiating table or picket line. But these are not normal times. In this grave recession, our very survival is at stake. Your companies are fighting to survive. My union is fighting to stem the rising tide of joblessness. And our great country is fighting to recover from the worst economic disaster in 80 years. So we have a choice. We can fight our separate fights for survival. Or we can fight together as a team for the survival of this industry and its workforce.”

“[Business aviation] is an industry we should be protecting, encouraging and promoting instead of taking shots at.”


In the years since that speech, as the economic downturn and policymaker mischaracterizations of business aviation have continually confronted the industry, the IAM, which is headquartered in Washington, DC, has worked with NBAA to help dispel the myths surrounding the use of general aviation aircraft; promote business aviation as an industry that provides good, high-paying jobs; and contributes positively to the nation’s balance of trade.

For example, in July 2011, NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen and Buffenbarger teamed up to deliver a joint message on the value of business aviation during The Bill Press Show, an influential national radio program. Buffenbarger explained that American companies manufacture most of the world’s business jets and that the U.S. industry employs about 84,000 IAM workers.

“These airplanes are used to conduct the business of America, to make the flow of commerce more efficient and effective,” explained Buffenbarger. “We export these planes around the world, [which contributes] to the positive side of the [U.S.] trade imbalance. [Business aviation] is an industry we should be protecting, encouraging and promoting instead of taking shots at,” he declared.

During the low point of the economic downturn, Buffenbarger even went as far as to directly ask President Obama about coming to Wichita, KS, to see the “man-made devastation” caused by the negative rhetoric about business aviation. Although the president has not yet accepted the invitation, that “doesn’t deter us from fighting for this industry. We have too many members and too many jobs and there are too many good things for our nation involved in this industry,” Buffenbarger said.


Of course, the IAM doesn’t just talk about business aviation; it has been using general aviation aircraft since 1978, and the organization’s current airplane is particularly useful in collective bargaining and organizing efforts, giving union leaders the ability to move quickly. On most trips, the six-seat aircraft carries at least four passengers.

Buffenbarger says the airplane is essential because he is on the road 250 days a year. Last year, he visited five states on Labor Day alone, a trip he could not have made on the airlines.

“We can carry out the business of this organization while we are traveling [in the airplane], receiving faxes, e-mail and phone calls in flight,” explained Buffenbarger. But more importantly, the airplane has given the IAM staff “the freedom to spend more time in the field with our membership and our employers, one on one. We can visit our members in some pretty remote places, like the far reaches of Canada at some mining or oil drilling facility that you can’t get to commercially.”

The value of meeting with workers and employers face-to-face is apparent when the IAM is working on “master agreements” with large employers that have multiple locations, said Buffenbarger.

“In the past, when voting [on a proposed agreement] we had to hope the local folks understood by osmosis the master agreement and everything that went on at the bargaining table. Now I can put our bargainers and our chief committee people on the plane and go from site to site, usually in a 24-hour period, and personally visit with each [company] location to explain the nuances of an agreement. Certainly you can have conference calls and meetings, but when you are down to crunch time, you’ve got to look somebody in the eye for something that’s going to have an effect in the hundreds of billions of dollars.”


The IAM also uses its airplane to transport officials to a variety of union meetings around the country, especially in the spring and fall, when state organizations typically hold their annual or biannual conventions. Buffenbarger and his associates can’t attend all these regional meetings, but they recently went to gatherings in North and South Dakota, Kansas City and Grand Island, NE – all in one weekend.

“Inside of 36 hours I was able to make all those meetings, visit with the membership and spend quality time [with them], conduct the business of the organization and be back in Washington, DC first thing Monday morning,” noted Buffenbarger. “That scenario gets repeated almost every weekend in the spring and in the fall. That’s why we spend all that time on the road, making multiple stops.”

The IAM’s Learjet also is used to support communities that have suffered natural disasters. “We try to be first responders for our members. We are glad to do that. The fact is, a scheduled airline can’t get into those sites, while we can.”

Buffenbarger said his union will continue articulating the value of the airplane to his organization and countless others, as well as the essential role of business aviation in supporting jobs and connecting communities.

“The union is very much a champion for this industry, especially for the employer base we represent,” said Buffenbarger. “These are jobs with a future. People aren’t going to quit flying. We may have economic ups and downs, but… I think [business aviation] is worthy of government support.”


A sampling of companies and products:

  1. Hamilton Standard, a division of United Technologies Corporation, space suit
  2. Beloit Corporation pre-press model
  3. Consolidated Freightways Corporation model truck
  4. Harley Davidson motorcycle
  5. General Electric turbojet engine
  6. BNSF Railway Company model engine
  7. NASA space shuttle model