Is Your Flight Department Underutilized?

 - December 19, 2007, 1:54 PM

Who in your company has access to the corporate aircraft? Is it just a handful of top executives, or can anyone with a need for travel schedule a trip? Does your department have a policy for selecting between competing schedules, or does the highest-ranking executive get the aircraft regardless of other considerations? Is your marketing department a welcome and frequent user of your flight department, or must the company’s best salespeople plead with the chairman’s PA to arrange a customer visit?

Far too many corporations limit access to company aircraft. We all know of Fortune 100 firms with a fleet of aircraft valued at close to $100 million that serve a dozen or fewer top people. How unfortunate. And how shortsighted, not only for those responsible for maximizing return from shareholder’s equity, but also for flight department personnel, who certainly would like to have job security.

A company’s most valuable asset is its employees. People convert ideas into salable products and services. People market the company’s wares to customers, and the most effective marketing occurs when seller and buyer meet face-to-face. Getting the key decision makers together is paramount.

It is not simply Mahogany Row executives negotiating mega deals who should use a company aircraft, relegating lesser flights to the scheduled airlines. Time wasted or used inefficiently can never be regained, regardless of how much or how little an employee is paid. A company must not risk the possibility that an important opportunity will be missed because the right person or team could not be at the right place at the right time. How many sales go to the competition because someone rationalized that a tedious airline trip could be avoided? Often it is the road not traveled that results in the bigger loss.

I find that private companies often obtain more utilization from their aircraft than do large public corporations. In part, smaller privately owned firms react more quickly to changing market conditions, and they are less constrained by what some corporate executives fear will be questions from the business press and inquisitive shareholders. One chief pilot told me recently how his employer uses the company aircraft, a Citation X, to take potential customers to the firm’s manufacturing facilities in Europe. What would be an arduous trip from heartland U.S. to mainland Europe is accomplished in half the time via the Citation, compared with the airlines. Customers appreciate the ease of such travel, and the firm’s sales personnel use time en route to promote the firm’s focus on building reliable products and providing excellent service. Such trips across the Atlantic pay for themselves in added clients and lasting new business.

The firm in this example was not always so enlightened. Like many users of corporate aircraft, it was a bit reluctant to consider expanding the user base for its aircraft out of fear that flight department costs would increase noticeably. But about 10 years ago, the company experimented with the concept and was favorably surprised. More business resulted, and everyone came out a winner. Company sales increased, more employees saw the value of the company aircraft and the flight department upgraded its primary aircraft to better serve the expanding reach of the company.

When a flight department delivers more value to more employees, not just to the top people, everyone involved has greater job security.

Many flight department managers are reluctant to challenge policies limiting employee access to the company aircraft. They believe that keeping the boss and his or her top people happy guarantees tomorrow’s paycheck.

But does it? What happens if the top person retires, moves to another corporation or is let go? There is a risk that his replacement might regard the company aircraft as nothing more than an executive perk, particularly if the aircraft was viewed within the company as simply the boss’s royal barge (which it very well might have been because it was underutilized). Failing to appreciate the value of business aviation and wanting to make an immediate effect on the bottom line, the new CEO might be tempted to close the flight department. We all know of such cases, even in today’s era of time-consuming airline travel, long lines at airports and high fares for business travelers.

As a flight department manager, you are responsible for managing a very important resource–business aircraft for business transportation. Efficient, safe and secure transportation plays a key role in a company’s success. In the long run, your job security and the security of those around you depend upon maximizing the utilization of your company’s aviation assets to satisfy your company’s travel needs.

If your flight department is underutilized, look for more customers for the product you are selling, which is cost-effective transportation. Find examples from your own operation and from your peers that demonstrate the value of business aviation. Contact other department heads in your company and communicate the advantages of using the company aircraft. Work out a satisfactory chargeback system that encourages use, perhaps as a trial. Any way you can, find a reason to have more employees fly on the company aircraft. One carefully selected trip is all it takes to demonstrate why business aviation delivers value.

There are many ways to increase the utilization of your flight department. Start by fully understanding who travels within your company and looking for methods to satisfy those needs. Document and promote the product your flight department delivers, and be proud to sell the value of business aviation.

Jack Olcott, president of NBAA from 1992 to mid-2003, continues to advocate the advantages of business aviation as president of General Aero Company, located at Morristown Municipal Airport, N.J.