October 22, 2007
|CEO of the Cockpit
My nephew Kermit had moved up in the world. Fresh out of the Aviation College at the University of South Toledo, he was a sales-rep gofer for one of the dozens of new VLJ manufacturers that dot the flying landscape of late.
He was justifiably proud of the "Sky-Screamer 100." Not only did this three-place, subsonic, turbine-powered product have the clean looks of a T-38 on crack, it had a color scheme straight out of a Jimi Hendrix drug-induced dream.
The only problem that I could see about the whole endeavor was that the jet really didn't exist yet. They had a mock-up, some flashy models to show prospective customers and a kick-ass video in which an animated model of the aircraft does all sorts of cool stuff with cool looking people in cool looking places.
Build Your Factory Here And Get A Free Sewer!
Various cities were fighting over the imaginary factory. So far, Newark, N.J., Amarillo, Texas, and Bangalore, India, were still in the running. The city fathers in each location were trying to out-do each other in offering tax incentives and give-aways to an aviation firm that had yet to fly its first airfoil.
The Galaxian Jet Company, builder of the Sky-Screamer, had 233 advance orders and the $100,000 deposits to go with them. Their first projected delivery date? The autumn of 2010.
This fact didn't seem to bother much of anybody but me. Kermit had gotten me press credentials to this year's NBAA convention in Atlanta (or, as Delta pilots like to call it, "Widget Wonderland"). Even though I can't write any better than Larry King -- which is to say not at all -- I found myself eating great media food and throwing great media swag into my multi-colored, NBAA, souvenir tote-bag. The next three Christmases are totally taken care of. Enjoy your free tool kits and mouse pads, everybody!
Kermit got me checked in at the media room and left to woo yet another millionaire with too much money who wanted to order an imaginary jet.
A Very Serious Playground
The NBAA confab is a grown-up version of a Christmas toy catalog. There are two huge convention floors and one huge static display at an airport outside of town. On the floors you can find every kind of business-aircraft product, gimmick, improvement, entertainment center and gee-gaw. At the static display you can find dozens of jets you can't afford along with hundreds of employees working the site who can't afford the jets either.
The advantage of riding a courtesy bus out to the static display, of course, is that what you see there is real. These aircraft had to fly to get here and, for the most part, they are as real as burrs on a bear and clueless on a chief pilot.
Attendees at the convention were told via the brochure that they were expected to turn out in coat and tie with shiny shoes. No Pratt-and-Whitney belt buckled, short wearing, beer-gut sporting "I'm with Stupid" t-shirt-wearing, low-life, fly-in pilots allowed here. The policy clearly shouted that they wanted serious, money-spending, imaginary-jet-buying principals at this soiree.
Like in all serious businesses, the coat and tie rule doesn't apply if you are young, good-looking, well-endowed and female. Literally hundreds of lovelies, wearing faux airline flight-crew jump-suits cut just low enough to expose the mammary mountains but not low enough to qualify for a job at The Cheetah Three Lounge in Atlanta were all over the convention floor serving coffee, handing out brochures and generally smelling nice.
Their presence there was evocative of flying airliners in the late 1970s and early 1980s before such things as the elimination of weight checks and sex discrimination came along to spoil things for us sexist pilots.
A Boeing with Beds
Like any good airline pilot, I first went over to the Boeing Business Jets area of the display floor when I arrived. There is something that attracts me to jets that are big enough for me to park my Porsche in the front cargo hold as I jet off to Berne or Nice.
They, of course, didn't park any real jets on the display floor but they had various, huge, scale-models of what I could expect should I decide to buy a 777 and make a camper out of it for me, Maw and the kids. I was glancing over such a model when a lovely named Gwenn sidled up to me and offered a designer cup of coffee.
"Are you interested in buying an executive aircraft like this one?" she asked.
Hell, honey, I said, I can't afford to buy this plastic model that we're looking at. I have to admit, though, that I have always dreamed about flying my executive 777 out to Sun 'n Fun and camping with the common folk, just north of the ultralight area and east of the porta-potties.
That evoked a laugh out of Gwenn who, by the way, was dressed conservatively. She was a class act ... not like those tube-top-wearing skanks giving out free key chains over by the west wall.
Once we got to talking, I found out that Gwenn had a lot in common with my nephew Kermit. She was young, had a few ratings and a college degree from a local aviation program, and was looking for a real job.
"I'm here to sell the sizzle, they tell me." She said. "If my mom's generation was here, they would probably be looking for a rich husband. There are plenty of rich guys hanging around here talking about buying a 737 with a gold shower stall, but most of them are like you."
I tried to take that last remark in a good way. It is true that I was a sort-of gate-crasher to the NBAA event and they had fed me a free lunch up in the press room, even though I didn't intend to buy as much as a slice of pizza. As a commercial sales lead, I was a dud and Gwenn was clearly wasting her time on me.
Kermit Finds His Uncle
"There you are," said Kermit as he approached us from the direction of the Virgin Charter booth. "I thought I might find you over here by the big jets."
Yes, I said. I have always had a policy of not flying jets that are smaller than me.
I introduced Kermit to Gwenn and could see an instant one-sided attraction. Kermit was in love; Gwenn was in a state of deep disinterest. Perfect fodder for romance, at least in my vast experience. I knew that Kermit would be back later with a dinner invitation for Gwenn. I estimated his chances at about even. We headed over to the Galaxian Sky Screamer booth.
Their kick-ass video was being shown in high-def on a 20-yard-wide flat screen that was suspended above the crowd. Beneath the screen was the mock-up of the proposed jet. It was wafting in a cloud of dry-ice fog and swirling colored lights. Hell, if I had my checkbook, I would have written a deposit right there and then. It was a sales effort worthy of P.T. Barnum himself.
Once the prospect is hooked, they land him or her in the boat by going back to a glass lounge and office area where they can talk in private. This is the equivalent of the sales office at a used car lot but a million times more classy and important.
The Bone Of Contention
I kept a low profile at the show for two reasons. First, I want Kermit to have a chance at some sort of career. Being related to me already has lots of draw-backs; I didn't want to ruin his flying life by association right out of the starting gate. Second, the airline companies and the business aircraft people are at loggerheads over who should pay for what.
The airlines contend that "private flying" is done by multi-millionaires in very expensive jets and that they don't pay their fair share for clogging up the ATC system with their various flying pleasure domes.
The business aviation people see their part of the aviation pie as more of a refuge for plebian working stiffs who just want to get away from the stress and toil of life by flying their Meridians and King Airs off for a little fly fishing in Aspen.
The real irony, of course, is that we are talking about the very same people here. Both groups are privileged and rich, suit-wearing, stock-option-holding graduates of various prestigious business schools. Like any high school debate team, their position on the issue depends on which side the teacher has assigned them.
While I am leaning more in support of Kermit and Gwenn's jobs, I still think that the airlines have a lot to learn from the NBAA. What if they had attractive girls serving coffee to their customers? What if they required their customers to dress up a little bit before coming to the airport?
What a world that would be! It would be the world of airline flying back in the 1970s and early 1980s, when people wore suits to fly on an airliner, a ticket price was sane enough to keep the airline in business and real coffee was served by real girls in real coffee cups.
Left At The Show
Just as I was awaiting the shuttle bus that would take me south to my Virginia Avenue hotel near Delta World Headquarters (which is called "Red Square" by Delta pilots), I wasn't surprised at all to find I had a voice mail in my cell.
"Hey unc ..." it began. "Gwenn and I are heading over to Buckhead for a little dinner and maybe a movie. I'll see you in a few weeks at home after your next airline trip."
It all came into focus at that moment for me. We aren't selling imaginary jets or imaginary airline service to people so we can make money. We are selling imaginary jets and service so that kids like Gwenn and Kermit can have a great career and a good life. Perhaps they'll marry and reproduce, resulting in a whole new generation of bored-looking, gray-haired pilots like me.
It's the circle of life.
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