““When I made the film The Invention of Lying, they gave me a private jet for getting back and forth between New York and London. I thought, ‘I will never use it’ but I ended up using it every weekend. You turn up, right, and the airport is completely empty. I mean, there’s just someone at the desk and then the pilot, who says, ‘Are you ready to go?’ and you say, ‘Don’t you want to see my passport?’ and he goes, ‘Oh yeah, I suppose I’d better.’” ”
Is your jet a business too? Or is it part of the executive compensation package? Among people who never fly privately, probably 99 out of 100 would view it only as the latter. We inside the industry, meanwhile, tend to acknowledge only the former-to a fault. The disconnect reminds me of the old TV commercial: "Certs is a candy mint!" "Certs is a breath mint!" (announcer) "Stop-you're both right! New Certs is two mints in one!"
There is a wide gulf between executive perk and business tool. But besides being polar opposites, they do overlap in complex ways. Business aircraft operators need to take a breath and articulate the differences to those who matter-corporate customers, lower-level employees, business partners, vendors, stockholders and, usually the toughest audiences of all, the press and the general public.
If you fully own your company, then you also own the company airplane. You can use it to tow a banner over the beach to propose to your fiancée, if you want. If your company is beholden to stockholders, however, it's a different story. You have a moral and legal responsibility to fly appropriately. Using a company aircraft for pleasure travel can be demoralizing to employees and customers- and it's potentially a much bigger problem if stockholders' interests are compromised.
To understand the difference between using a private jet and the airlines, it might help to compare the use of a private company automobile with reliance on public ground transportation. Imagine a salesman riding buses and trains to cover his territory and consider this phone scenario: "Yes, Mr. New Customer across town? You love our products and want to meet this morning? Well, the next bus comes by in 45 minutes, and after I make a couple of connections I can be there in three-and-a-half hours. Will that be OK?"
Probably not. And what if Mr. New Customer unexpectedly needs something from the salesman's shelves right now? Let's not forget, either, that our salesman is not being as productive as he can while sitting on the bus or train.
Even though a company car might also serve his personal transportation needs, it just makes good business sense for him to have that mobility at his disposal, for a lot of reasons. He could be using his mobile phone (hands-free, of course) to keep in touch while en route. And he can make a stop on the way back home to see a new prospect. Scaling up the travel distances to nationwide-or global-makes it clear that in-house jet-travel service isn't a luxury. It's irresponsible to customers and stockholders not to have that capability.
That said, the distinction between what is compensation and what is business use can get blurry. A few years ago-long before the debacle of the auto executives' trips to Washington- a news story cross-referenced the air-traffic-control records of several companies' corporate jets with the registered golf scores of key executives at matching locations. The conclusion? The stockholders were footing the bill for golf outings. An outrage, yes? Well, maybe no. What the story didn't reveal was who else was in each foursome. A golf game is a unique window into a person's personality. And business deals are all about relationships. Raw information on itineraries and handicaps can't reveal the intricacies of how each of those golf outings may have advanced the companies' ultimate fortunes.
Granted, abuse does exist when it comes to using company aircraft. I have no doubt that anecdotes about sending the company jet to pick up a pet from the groomer-and even more egregious scenarios-have basis in fact. If we simply ignore those abuses and insist that every flight on a business jet is above reproach, then we will remain vulnerable to critics who cite these real examples. But no one would suggest that a department manager get rid of the photocopy machine (and go back to carbon paper) because someone used it to copy his kid's birthday invitations. So let's not totally dismiss the productivity of business aviation because of some poor judgment with a high profile.