Da Plane, Da Plane
I’m sitting at home, recovering from minor surgery this morning (Q: What is minor surgery? A: Surgery on somebody else) and reflecting on Dave Hoffman’s eminently sensible post about the executive jet. Like most things, the use of corporate aircraft is far more nuanced than people with agendas make it out to be; nevertheless, access to the company plane, even for company business, probably got its status as Target Number One for populist demagoguery the old fashioned way: it earned it.
You may want to pull out your air violin on this, but first, there are private jets and there are private jets. If you are flying in a Gulfstream V or a Falcon 900, you are pretty comfortable. If you are flying in a Citation V with all the seats occupied, you are not, particularly if you need to use a bathroom. Add to that the far greater effect of weather and turbulence on a small airplane plus the fact that in crowded airspace big airliners are given first priority for the smooth air, and you can have a pretty wild time. My worst flying memory was all of that packed into a landing in Teterboro, New Jersey where we circled and circled through head-jarring turbulence, all the time listening to the TCAS up front squawking “traffic, traffic, traffic.” A three Xanax flight.
Second, many companies use private aircraft because it is far more efficient than commercial. Our headquarters was in Indianapolis and our largest facility was in El Dorado, Arkansas. With the Citation V, anybody (not just the CEO) could get there and back in two hours; flying commercial meant you committed three days (change planes in Memphis or St. Louis to Little Rock, then drive 2-3 hours).
What makes the company plane an attractive populist target, even if you can compensate the executive in lieu of the jet and the compensation is fully disclosed, is that ordinary people simply cannot get this kind of compensation. Flying privately is a perk that almost defines the executive class – it is largely unavailable to most people and it IS easier, less time consuming, and spares one almost all of the indignities of modern air travel. Even when the company plane is generally available for all legitimate business purposes in the company (and most are), the CEO usually has first call on it. (I can’t remember where I saw it, but I didn’t make this up – you also have the GE style Thomas a Becket problem. The joke was that if Jack Welch asked for a cup of coffee, somebody at GE ended up buying Brazil. That is to say, even if the CEO wanted to give up the plane for a more efficient use, it wouldn’t be uncommon for his or her minions – personal assistant, traffic coordinator, whatever – to insulate the CEO from the competing request because that’s what the minion thought the CEO wanted the minion to do.) I spent eleven years at a senior level in two big companies, both of which had dedicated Citations, and I don’t remember the CEOs of either (one divisional and one of the corporation) ever flying commercial within the lower 48 states. So while we “C levels” got to use the company plane a lot, we still had the occasional commercial flight to experience how the other half lived.
And that’s apart from the provision in the CEO’s employment contract – never anybody else’s – that says you get X hours of personal use of the aircraft, with the hourly cost added to your taxable income, and that compensation grossed up.
In short, the political bang is not in the cost, but the exclusivity.