Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Business Aviation - Myth and Realities

business jet
by B. N. Sullivan

I have a problem with the way business aviation is being portrayed in the news media these days. Most of business aviation is about pragmatics; it is not about glamour and luxury. But given the tone of recent news coverage of this industry sector, a casual observer could be excused for not understanding those facts. This troubles me.

Ever since the now legendary day when U.S. auto company CEOs flew to Washington on high-end corporate jets to ask Congress for bailout money, the mainstream media have been having a field day. Harsh put-downs of corporate executive travel on 'lavish private jets' have become de rigeur. Apparently such stories strike a nerve with ordinary folks who are struggling to make ends meet in these troubled times, yet pointing fingers at the few who do (perhaps) make use of corporate aircraft inappropriately strikes me as gratuitous scapegoating.

The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) and similar organizations have been doing what they can to counter the bad publicity. Some journalists -- and especially those who write for aviation industry media -- have produced articles that attempt to justify the use of corporate aircraft. Yet many of the arguments presented to the public in support of business aviation apparently fall short of the mark. Business aviation is still associated with the image of corporate fat cats flying around on snazzy jets because they think they are above traveling on airliners like mere mortals.

Why does this maddeningly negative image of business aviation persist when all of us in the aviation community know it is both limited and faulty? Perhaps we have done a poor job of communicating the real issues at hand.

Back in February, I wrote an article here on Aircrew Buzz about the breadth of the impact of a decline in business aviation on livelihoods -- not those of high-flying executives, but of everyone who works to operate, service, maintain, supply, and manufacture business aircraft. Perhaps we need to do more to publicize the important fact that every time a corporate jet is left idle, and every time an order for a new business aircraft is canceled or deferred, many ordinary people in neighborhoods around the country stand to lose their jobs, or -- at best -- to have their work hours and pay and benefits reduced.

Perhaps we can do a better job of explaining the very nature of business aviation, and its value to companies large and small. Recently, I have seen many articles in the mainstream press argue that business aviation is not cost effective. Usually these articles present examples highlighting the cost of, say, a first class airline ticket from point A to point B, compared to the cost of operating a corporate jet on the same route. They always conclude that a company could save a lot of money by forcing its executives to fly commercially.

This is a specious argument. Trips like those do not exemplify the purposes for which business aircraft are most frequently used. The examples assume, for one thing, that said executives' travel always entails a simple point A to point B trip. Furthermore, they assume that the travelers can leave their local airport and -- airline ticket in hand -- fly directly to their destination, and do it when they need to do so. Worse still is the assumption that only top executives make use of corporate aircraft. These distortions need to be called out.

Ignored completely are multi-leg trips for, say, a corporate roadshow -- trips that can entail stops at five or six destinations in one day. Add in the fact that at least some of those destinations will not be at or near a commercial airline hub, and it becomes clear that making the trip via airlines would be impractical, if not impossible.

Ignored as well is the use of business aircraft to transport maintenance technicians, sales teams, and others whose domains are their companies' nuts and bolts, not executive suites. Business aircraft frequently carry not just these employees, but all their tools and equipment as well, thus obviating the need for separate shipping and eliminating the possibility of en route losses of those materials.

Another aspect of misinformation about business aviation has to do with the planes themselves. It seems that whenever business aviation is disparaged in the media, we see accompanying photos of large-cabin jets with luxurious interiors. Clearly the not too subtle aim is to equate business aviation with imprudent extravagance. Of course these aircraft exist, but again, they do not exemplify the bulk of business aviation.

The majority of business aircraft are far more humble than a Gulfstream, a Global Express or a large Falcon. Smaller jets, which are far more numerous, are no more luxurious or spacious than a mini-van. Indeed, a large proportion of business aircraft are not even jets, and their cabins can be quite spartan.

In sum, I think that if we wish to defend business aviation, we should point out consistently that the current popular image is inaccurate at best, and in some ways just plain wrong. We need to communicate that business aviation is much more commonplace than most people imagine, and that corporate aircraft are employed most often to accomplish very prosaic, though essential, tasks. 

We need to do a better job of educating the public -- and certain government officials -- about the everyday realities that make this sector of the aviation industry so vital and indispensable to commerce. We need to ensure that the livelihoods of the many people who work in business aviation are not compromised due to erroneous information and mean-spirited myths.