Should Governors Have Airplanes?
Last week's news stories on business jets used by governors raised the ever-sordid notion that anyone who sets foot in a Citation is a fat cat. And if the airplane is state supported, the cat is fat on the backs of taxpayers. In the current season of overspending government, it's fruitless to try to explain that airplanes are sometimes productivity tools which can pay back far greater than the money invested in them. On the other hand and risking apostasy here, they can also be a colossal waste of time and taxpayer or shareholder money. It depends entirely on how and what they're used for. And much of this is about image, not substance.
Last week's stories would have caused anyone who has used an airplane for business to pause and think about what rules are applied for business trips involving a private aircraft. It certainly did for me. Up until about six years ago, I used our Mooney—make that plural, we had two—for periodic business travel related to magazine editorial work. I'll get to why I no longer use it in a moment.
Between testing aviation products and trips to see vendors and manufacturers, I'd guess I made a couple of dozen or more trips a year. Because I hardly have an unlimited budget, I applied a stringent acid test to using the airplane. No single-destination trips over a couple of hours and no long trips where I could do better on the airlines. In other words, if I used the airplane, I usually had at least two or three stops into places where I couldn't get by airline travel.
Here are some numbers: We billed our airplanes at about $130 wet, which was probably a little below the real cost. When we were based in Connecticut, I could non-stop it to destinations in the Midwest and deep South, stopping along the way to do additional business. For example, I could do a round trip to Oshkosh for about $1200. With a couple of people aboard, that was justifiable. But not if I was going alone, where $1200 is a no-brainer against a $300 airline ticket. With additional stops—sometimes two or three—the equation swung back in favor of the Mooney.
When we moved to Florida, the numbers stopped working for two reasons. Florida is at the ends of the earth for routine travel into the rest of the U.S. and, because of the tourist trade, the airline fares here are highly competitive. From Florida, trips into the Northeast and Midwest in the Mooney were totaling closer to $2000, against $250 for an airline fare. For light aircraft flying at 150 knots, the time-saving argument is an illusion. The Northeast trip in the Mooney, in addition to costing eight times more, was slower than an airline trip. Each way would consume most of a day. To work around that, I took to flying the trips at night. But on one trip, bucking 40 knot headwinds, ice and rain, I found myself pushing the airplane back into the hangar at 2 a.m. Thanks, but no thanks. After a persistent pattern of that sort of thing, we sold the Mooney.
Do I miss it? Yeah, I miss it. Last spring, I had to go to Mobile to visit Continental. The airline fare was $1000 and required an overnight. I could have flown it for half that in the Mooney and done the trip in a long day. But on balance, I don't have many trips like that. I'm as all about slipping the surly bonds as the next guy, but I run a business and the dollars matter. A lot.
So that gets back to our two governors, Mississippi's Haley Barbour and Florida's new governor, Rick Scott. Barbour got crosswise with the legislature who claims he was abusing the privilege of access to the state's Citation. It's impossible to judge this at a distance without reviewing the trip logs. It smells of a political witch hunt. In Scott's case, he wants to sell the state's King Air and Citation as a high-profile cost-cutting move. Again, it's probably more political than practical. He's a wealthy businessman and can afford his own jet transportation.
So, coming full circle, can states like Mississippi and Florida justify owning or leasing their own business aircraft? I'm not about to automatically say yes just because I think anything to do with airplanes is just grand or to support the aviation industry. As in the foregoing discussion, I would expect governors to make the business case for the airplane. If a governor makes even a couple of trips out of state to lure companies into the state through face-to-face meetings, the airplane will pay for itself many times over. On the other hand, planned ahead travel for political (or personal) reasons will be a juicy target that will do more harm than good.
Florida is a big state, with distances far too great to cover by car or even helicopter. For in-state travel, the state's King Air 350 seems like a perfectly sensible solution, even without looking close. It's fairly inexpensive to operate and can get from one corner of the state to the next in a little over an hour. Actually, selling it off in the current down market is probably none too smart. But the people Scott is trying to impress with his cost cutting probably won't notice.