TRAVELING FOR BUSINESS. Bill Cox asserts that it often makes economic sense for executives to travel by business aircraft rather than the airlines.
I’ve owned personal airplanes almost since I earned my pilot’s license 43 years ago. I didn’t buy my first airplane, a Globe Swift, specifically for business (in fact, I don’t recall ever flying it in conjunction with a story), but most of the half-dozen airplanes I’ve owned since have been employed primarily in pursuit of profit.
I couldn’t help but reflect on that reality recently while having breakfast at Chino Airport in Southern California with Dave Jackson, now the CEO of King Schools. Dave is an old friend from our days of working together on the ’80s-vintage ABC show, Wide World of Flying, me in front of the camera and Dave behind it. These days, he flies a Bonanza, and we’ll sometimes rendezvous at a local airport to commiserate about the state of the industry, how much better things used to be and why we’re not as young as we were then.
Our meeting in Chino was most notable in that it was one of the first times I’d flown my airplane for fun in several months. It seems my Mooney trips are virtually all on editorial missions of some kind. Last year, in conjunction with stories, I flew to perhaps a half-dozen local air shows, the Reno Air Races, Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta, AOPA Expo in San Jose, two speaking engagements in California and a number of other locations.
That’s not to downplay the importance of fun flying. I’m a big fan of aviating for the sheer joy of it. I used to fly a Super Decathlon and Pitts S2C strictly for vertical and inverted grins, and I’ll always defend a pilot’s right to spend discretionary income however he or she chooses, as long as it’s legal and doesn’t hurt anyone.
Recently, however, we’ve seen the validity of corporate and business airplanes challenged by Congress. A Congressional committee took America’s Big Three automakers to task a few months ago for flying to a Washington, D.C., bailout hearing in business jets.
Our legislators then suggested that all three companies should divest themselves of their corporate airplanes and expressed amazement when no one volunteered to do so. Such a suggestion demonstrates a lack of understanding of the value of corporate aircraft. We can take issue with a great many aspects of government bailouts or privatizations, but it’s not the best use of a top executive’s time to wait around air terminals as the person tries to be all the places he or she needs to be in a week or a day.
Unfortunately, comments about corporate aviation have had the desired effect. Both Ford and General Motors have scaled back or sold off their flight departments, and Chrysler has vowed to reduce operations. It’s almost as if the economic laws that dictated the wisdom of those purchases in the first place have been repealed.
The simple fact is that corporate and business airplanes make sense for a variety of applications. Okay, we’ve probably all seen the proliferation of business jets and turboprops at places such as Aspen or the venue for the Super Bowl, but is that any more immoral than driving your Toyota to the country club or your Audi to the marina for a day of sailing?
In many instances, a business plane is the only viable method of reaching a destination. It also can be the most efficient. Obviously, corporate aircraft of most varieties expand the places you can fly and improve the schedule to get there.
You’re no longer limited to the roughly 300 airports served by the airlines; your horizons expand to some 4,000 paved strips and, perhaps, even some unpaved, boondock runways.
We’ve all seen examples of salary and bonus abuse in the corporate world, but I for one accept the fact that the majority of executives are worth what they’re paid. A little simple math is revealing. High-level corporate execs rarely work as little as a standard 40-hour week, but if you grant that assumption, a $5-million-per-year exec is paid about $2,500 per hour. Coincidentally, that’s roughly the hourly tab of a typical light to medium jet, such as a Citation Excel. Of course, bizjets rarely fly with only one passenger. According to the NBAA, it’s usually more like two or three. I’ve been fortunate to pilot, copilot or ride in back of corporate jets a few dozen times, and I’ve never been in one with less than four people aboard (except for ferry flights).
This means it can make economic sense to transport a pair of executives on a jet rather than the airlines. Does it really make sense to pay someone $2,500 per hour, then have the person commute to an airline airport, wait for baggage check-in, security and boarding, wait a half hour or more for baggage claim at the destination and then commute an indeterminate distance to the job or meeting site only to repeat the whole process for the return?
It’s also significant that the time spent aboard a corporate aircraft can be productive, with most modern bizjets equipped with WiFi, satellite phone and all the accoutrements of a business office.
Perhaps equally important, corporate flying isn’t limited to folks who operate multimillion-dollar jets over thousand-mile legs. Business aircraft run the gamut from the smallest general aviation singles to airliners. Many pilots fly short distances in modest four- to six-place singles or twins. I’m probably typical of that group, flying an older single over stage lengths that average between 200 and 400 nm.
Back in the days of $2-per-gallon avgas, I was able to make the economics work on legs as far as Oshkosh, especially when I had the luxury of carrying two passengers to split the cost. That’s a tougher trick these days.
Still, travel by business airplane makes sense in many respects. In addition to scheduling flexibility, business aircraft offer ultimate security since, in most instances, every passenger is known to the company and cleared for flight. On corporate jets, professional, two-person flight crews have a safety record comparable to that of the airlines. Post-trip fatigue is dramatically reduced when there’s no eight-year-old kid kicking your seat back for three hours.
If you live a few miles from LAX and your mission is a business meeting in downtown Manhattan, it may make economic sense to fly the airlines, especially if you have the luxury of scheduling your travel several weeks in advance.
Six months after 9/11, a good friend and well-known aviation celebrity finally decided he’d had enough and bought an A36 Bonanza specifically because of the unrealistic security demands of the TSA. He has since upgraded to a P210N, and with the exception of flying coast-to-coast, he does most of his business commuting in his aircraft.
The myth of corporate extravagance, however, will probably continue to plague the public’s perception of business aircraft.
Bill Cox is in his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot. He provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at [email protected].