03 Aug 2020

COVID-19: interview with Greg Principato, President & CEO of the National Aeronautical Association

Greg Principato, 64, has been President and CEO of the National Aeronautic Association (NAA) of the USA since October 2016. NAA is an FAI Active Member. It is based in Washington DC and consists of a team of four.

Here, Greg Principato discusses the impact of COVID-19 on his organisation, and the challenges that the NAA is now facing.

What role does NAA play in the COVID-19 crisis vis-à-vis its members?

NAA works with our members to ensure they have the kind of information and advice they need in order to make decisions on events and so forth. We delegate the running of events to the air sport organizations in our membership, and NAA serves on many of their boards. Through this interaction we seek to ensure their decisions on events and serving members are well informed. We also process record claims of all sorts for our members, and that activity continues. And we continue to select winners/recipients of our major awards, though it is unclear when we will be able to present them, as the situation in various parts of the US is deteriorating and the future remains quite uncertain.

What are the direct consequences of the outbreak for your Organisation, and how can you mitigate them?

We have had two corporate members downgrade their membership levels and there has been less record activity, both of which lead to less revenue. There have been no events, including luncheons and awards/records presentations, since late winter, which also impacts revenue. 

We have worked hard to keep our members informed of what we continue to do, as well as of broader developments in aviation through a newsletter, social media etc.
We entered into a partnership with the National Aviation Hall of Fame for a webinar series. The first was on the future of the broader industry as we move through and beyond the crisis (NAA/NAHF Airports, Airlines and Airplanes), the second was on space (SPACE: Charting the next trajectory), and the third about aerobatics and air shows (AEROBATICS AND AIR SHOWS: Get your fix).

What support have you received (or will you receive) from the US institutions, if any?

The only outside support we have received is a federal government loan for payroll support, which was included in the original COVID aid package signed into law. We will apply for the loan to be forgiven as we have met the criteria for using all of it for payroll support and similar expenses. This support gives us a chance to break even for the year.

What do you expect from FAI in this context?

What we expect from FAI is simple: a good records process running efficiently and with integrity, and good information on the state of world competitions and air sport developments. Frankly, this is what we expect in good times too. FAI has been very responsive to any questions or concerns we have had during this period. This crisis gives FAI a good chance (which it was beginning to take anyway) to truly focus on what is most important to members and move away from activities that are of less importance.

Which changes have you put in place within NAA that will have a positive effect on the future?

We have found that working from home and on Zoom is workable for us, so that might affect how we do business in the future. We have some tough decisions coming up, especially if it seems that our corporate members may need to further downgrade their level of participation, or even leave the organization. We could have to decide to find a less-expensive office situation or rely more heavily on working from home.

Have you already learned lessons from this situation that will be helpful for the future?

The main lesson to draw, I think, is to put the health and welfare of employees and members first. If you do that then the rest can follow. This forces us to focus on what is essential.  One wrong lesson would be to simply retreat into a shell and do far less because, as a member organization, we will always be expected to do more. The key is to do what is important.

This crisis is one of missed opportunities on so many levels. Those who have handled it well moved early; in some cases, this was because their regions had been similarly impacted by SARS, MERS, and so on. Others, such as my country, have not handled it as well, and we are paying the price. If we had handled it as well as even some European countries, we would be in a better position to be holding air sport events than we currently are. Many events have been cancelled or drastically scaled back. We have already cancelled two of our major awards/records events, and are now thinking hard about whether we can hold some that are scheduled for winter. It did not have to be this way, but the virus has its own timing and we can’t wish it away. The main lesson is to pay early attention to information and experts and have the courage to take steps that might seem extreme at the time, but allow us to get back to normal sooner, if taken early enough.