Monday, February 09, 2009

The Business Jet Fracas: One man's luxury is another's livelihood

Gulfstream G550Just about two years ago, I was preparing a paper for a conference in England. The conference was about women who work in the transportation industry, and my presentation was to be about women who work as flight attendants on large cabin long-range business jets.

As I was preparing the first draft of what would become my presentation, I had a chat with some corporate flight attendants I had come to know well. I told them about the conference and asked them what issues about their jobs they thought I should raise. The immediate and spontaneous reply was, "First, tell them that we exist!!"

We laughed, but I knew exactly what they meant. At that time, most people were only vaguely aware that there was such a thing as a corporate jet, and they knew virtually nothing of the people who work in that sector of the aviation industry.

Then came the current economic crisis, and the media spectacle of corporate CEOs arriving in Washington in sleek business jets to ask the U.S. Congress for a financial bailout. Suddenly corporate aviation was thrust into the media spotlight, and -- rightly or wrongly -- business jets became emblematic of corporate greed and excess in the eyes of the general public.

Now, thanks to the recent media circus surrounding corporate jets, people certainly do know that many companies own and operate business aircraft. I would contend, however, that they still do not understand much about business aviation, and -- more to the point -- it is also painfully apparent that the mainstream media and the public at large still do not appreciate the fact that the people whose job it is to operate and maintain those aircraft even exist!

My concern is that, in the midst of all of the brouhaha about whether or not corporate executives should be flying around in private jets, the jobs of the people who work on those aircraft, maintain them, and supply them, are at risk. Every time a corporate aviation department is downsized or eliminated, dozens and dozens of livelihoods are compromised or eliminated as well.

When I think of recent and potential job losses in the business aviation sector, pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and technicians come first to mind, yet the scope of the debacle actually is much broader. I think of the schedulers, the dispatchers and flight followers. I think of the people who work at the many airports that cater to general aviation, and those employed at FBOs. I think of those who provide services related to business aviation: the fuelers, the marshallers, the cleaners, the caterers. The livelihoods of all these people are at risk.

As orders for business aircraft are canceled or deferred, there will be more layoffs among the manufacturers and dealers of those planes. Employees of companies that make components for business aircraft -- from avionics, to navigational instruments, to interiors -- will lose their jobs as well. Likewise, companies that specialize in training business aviation crews and technical personnel -- an industry within an industry -- will suffer as they lose contracts.

In short, government officials, the mainstream media, and the public at large need to be made to understand that every time a company eliminates a business aircraft from its fleet, many jobs will be lost. This is true not just for the large cabin jets that have been getting most of the bad press, but also for the smaller, less glamorous aircraft. The jobs that will be lost will not be those of a few elite executives; rather, a lot of of ordinary, hard-working folks -- many of whom already live paycheck to paycheck -- stand to lose their livelihoods.

Those of us who know business aviation from the inside may well be able to recite all of the practical reasons and economic advantages afforded by the use of corporate aircraft, yet our defense of the corporate aviation sector should not focus solely on the business case for having a company plane. Perhaps we need to do a better job of telling the world about the many, many people who work in the industry, the extent to which they contribute to the overall economy, and the devastation that the loss of their jobs will create.

Business aviation still may be a mysterious world to the average person, but the people who work in the industry should not be invisible.

[Photo Source]