By Chris Sasser
Texas A&M Transportation Institute
For 38 years, TxDOT’s Aviation Division (AVN) has hosted the Texas Aviation Conference (TAC). While over the years there have been many unforgettable moments—from Marcus Luttrell’s stirring keynote to inspiring stories from award winners—this year’s conference will certainly prove to be one of the most memorable.
The 38th annual TAC was originally scheduled for April 7-9, 2020, at Moody Gardens Hotel in Galveston. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference was moved to Aug. 18-19 and eventually switched to a virtual platform. (see accompanying story)
Dan Harmon, who replaced David Fulton as the Aviation Division Director on Dec. 2, 2019, began the conference with the traditional State of the Aviation address.
STATE OF THE DIVISION ADDRESS
“It was very important to the entire team that we continue the tradition of the Texas Aviation Conference,” said Harmon, who was speaking from inside one of the Embraer Phenom 100s in the Flight Services fleet. “But as with everything with aviation, safety is paramount. So, if having the conference virtual is what it takes to do it safely, then that’s what we’ll do.”
Harmon has been with TxDOT since August 2013, during which time he has served as Maritime Division Director. He also served as interim Aviation Division Director since Summer 2019.
“Filling Dave’s shoes is a monumental task,” said Harmon. “Dave is my friend, and served as my mentor at TxDOT. Dave built a great team who has supported me throughout this transition and I look forward to working with them in the future.”
In his address, Harmon noted several staff changes including the retirements of Planning Director Greg Miller and Flight Services Director Jay Joseph, and the hiring of Planning Director Jim Halley (see accompanying story).
“It goes without saying the 2020 campaign has been driven by the COVID pandemic,” said Harmon. “Since February, it has had a devastating effect across the world on the aviation industry. No sector or community has been untouched. I don’t think any of us could have envisioned the landscape we have now. From early on, the division worked with our sponsors and our state agencies to try and provide the most updated information as possible.
“TxDOT Aviation is dedicated to helping our airports, especially during this time, and remains focused on providing support and continuing airport development projects. To provide important information to Texas general aviation airports and stakeholders, we created a COVID -19 page on our website to post guidance and updates received from state and federal agencies regarding funding opportunities and safe operation recommendations that may assist airports during the pandemic.” Note: To view the COVID-19 web page, please visit https://www.txdot.gov/inside-txdot/division/aviation/guidance-covid-19.html.
Harmon also spoke about the disbursement of grants from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
“As a result of the CARES Act, we are in the process of processing over 200 grants for $12 million, which is the equivalent of three years’ worth of grants in three months, and all done remotely.”
Harmon finished out his address by introducing the Texas Aviation Advisory Committee, which included three additional members from the past year.
FIRST KEYNOTE ADDRESS
Following Harmon’s address was Corporate Scientist and Chief Science Advocate at 3M Jayshree Seth. Seth presented on the “Global perception of Science and the need for STEM Advocacy.”
Seth began her career in 1993 where she worked on components for disposable soft goods such as diaper fastener. In 2006, she moved to the Industrial Adhesive and Tapes Division, where she now leads technology development for sustainable products for the Industrial market. Seth has also appeared in commercials for 3M.
“The fact that we are in this global phenomenon together is unprecedented,” said Seth. “Virtually all of humanity is facing the same threat, confronting the same fears, and waiting for the same miracle from science. So the role of science is more important than ever–we know that science is going to bring us to the other side of this threat we are facing during these times.”
TEXAS LEGISLATIVE SESSION
Finishing up the morning was the Texas Legislative Session, which featured remarks from Rep. John Cyrier, Bastrop, TX (TX-17); Rep. Ernest Bailes, Shepherd, TX (TX-18); J. Bruce Bugg, Jr. Chairman, Texas Transportation Committee; and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, Chair, Senate Aviation Subcommittee.
“If you look at where we are right now, nationally we are facing two simultaneous crises,” said Senator Cruz. “Number one is a global health pandemic that continues to pose serious threats to health and safety. In response to this pandemic we have taken remarkable steps to try to slow the spread of the virus and try to keep people safe, particularly those who are most vulnerable. At the same time, we’re facing a second crisis which is an economic catastrophe, which is of a magnitude that none of us have seen in our lifetimes. We saw aviation virtually shut down. It has slowly started to come back, but remains a fraction of where it was before this pandemic began.”
The afternoon sessions featured traditional TAC breakout sessions such as the airport manager’s roundtable and airport compliance, followed by a presentation on the RAMP program by manager Amy Slaughter. The first day closed out with virtual happy hours hosted by AVN staff.
SECOND KEYNOTE ADDRESS
The last day of the conference began with the second keynote presentation “Urban Air Mobility and What it Means for Texas” from Wyatt Smith, Head of Business Development, Uber Elevate; and Danielle Rinsler, Head of Aviation Policy, Uber Elevate.
“Aerial ridesharing can deliver time savings to people,” said Rinsler. “An example of our vision is that a trip from DFW International Airport to Frisco could take over an hour by ground trip during congested periods, but with UberAIR the same trip could take eight minutes. The goal is to reduce the amount of time people are spending in congested traffic and reduce congestion on the ground.”
TxDOT AVIATION/FAA SESSION
The next session was the TxDOT Aviation/FAA Session that featured Dan Harmon, Director, TxDOT, Aviation Division; Cameron Bryan, Deputy Airports Division Director, FAA Southwest Region; and Ignacio Flores, Airports Division Director, FAA Southwest Region. This traditional TAC session provided attendees an opportunity to ask questions related to airport funding and other important issues.
AVIATION DIVISION SECTION DIRECTORS SESSION
Closing out the conference was the Aviation Division Section Directors session which featured Kari Campbell, Director, Grant Management; Jim Halley, Director, Planning and Programming; and Eusebio Torres, Director, Engineering Project Management.
The panel was held at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute located at the RELLIS Campus in Bryan. Each director spoke about their sections and the role they play in the airport project process.
“When you look at the statistics, Texas is at the top of nearly every measurable aviation category in the country,” said Halley. “Aviation is a cornerstone of our economy and our connectivity to the rest of the world. Our partnerships with our sponsors will continue to be a very important part of keeping Texas at the forefront globally in aviation. We are here for you every step of the way.”
Campbell then spoke about the funding breakdown for fiscal year 2020.
“For FY 20, we received $62 million in federal funding, which is broken out into three different pots of money: $18.2 million in state apportionment funds, $27.2 million in non-primary entitlement funds and $16.6 million in discretionary funding,” said Campbell. “We also received about $19 million from the Texas Legislature to split between the airport development program and RAMP. We budget about $8 million for local capital improvement program cost share programs.”
Campbell also spoke about the extraordinary job her staff has done with the increased workload that came with the CARES Act grants.
Torres rounded out the section with an overview of the engineering project management section.
“Our engineering team is dedicated to providing the best customer service from beginning to end of the project,” said Torres.
At the end of the conference each staff member of AVN had the opportunity to say a virtual “hello” to the attendees.
“Obviously we would have rather had the conference in Galveston and met everyone face-to-face,” said Conference Coordinator Becky Vick. “But I’m proud of the effort of the staff to pull together this virtual conference and we hope that our attendees had a good experience as well.”
All presentations from this conference are available for download at https://events.tti.tamu.edu/conference/tac20/.
The 2021 TAC is scheduled for Aug. 3-5, 2021, at the Embassy Suites in San Marcos, Texas.