Dear Mr. President: Give Us a Break, Willya?
I was traveling Tuesday night and missed the President's State of the Union message. But over breakfast Wednesday morning, I caught a CNN summary of it, a snippet of which began, "This time, CEOs won't be able to use taxpayer money to pad their paychecks ... ." As that sentence unfolded, I held my breath: Is he going to take the easy shot at the private jet? Sure enough: "... or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over."
This is the verbal equivalent of kicking a guy when he's down or of running a two-minute drill in football when you already lead by 48 points. Enough already. We get it. If I were given to similarly cheap shots, I might point out that our President is the beneficiary of (if not the largest) the most-expensive-to-operate private jet on the planet. What President Obama is doing, of course, is surfing the wave of populist anger about corporate excess. The bizjet segment is, unfortunately, being dragged along for the ride. Admittedly, it's not like he doesn't have a case here. We now know of at least three fugitive financiers who allegedly bilked investors for billions and who, of course, had private jets or used them. One of them even owns the FBO at my home airport.
Just as an aside, if I were President, I'd haul the head of the Secret Service into my office and tell him to figure out a way fly me in an Air Force 737 for at least domestic travel. And before he even spoke, I'd tell him "we can't do that Mr. President" is not on the table. Call me naive, but the Presidential barge and all that goes with it is less necessary than it is a product of a security bureaucracy that's been given an unlimited budget and unquestioned authority. If scaling back is good for industry, it's good for the chief executive, too, the majesty of the Presidential office notwithstanding.
But I digress. The rising populist view is that business jets are a symbol of excess and, as noted, there have been examples. How should the industry respond? One way not to respond is to react like a stuck pig and scream about how unfair it all is. The industry is, for the time being, holding the short end of the stick and we've got to get over it. As my colleague Mary Grady pointed out, on the anniversary of Darwin's birth, adaptability is the notion of the age.
NBAA's No Plane, No Gain PR campaign is on the right track, but I don't think it's specific enough. The public, stockholders and boards need to be shown real numbers describing the economic advantages of business aircraft. Show me an invoice for airline travel for five people, show me the business aircraft costs, including time savings. But please, don't wear me out with the argument that the CEO is too important and too time pressed to run his shoes through the X-ray scan.
I am absolutely certain that these economic arguments can be made. When we were based in Connecticut, I routinely used our Mooney for multi-stop business trips that wouldn't have been feasible in any other way. There's no question that these same economics still exist and still apply to many companies. But here's the thing: They don't apply to every company all the time. In an age where mass transit is more politically acceptable than private jet travel, the adaptation the industry has to make is toward efficient, justifiable use of these expensive assets. If that means a Net Jet position instead of a full-up flight department, so be it. Remember Darwin.
But, as an industry, I think it's critical to keep our eyes on the hard-headed numbers to show—not just talk about—the bottom-line value of business airplanes. In the opening lines of this blog, I indulged myself the pleasure of pointing to what might be called a Presidential excess. But really, that's just changing the subject away from what matters. It's up to us to make the argument (and the sale) and we won't do that by discrediting either the President or Congress, but by selling the practicalities of business airplanes.