Newsmakers 2009: Alphabets and OEMs tackle negative portrayal of bizjets

 - December 28, 2009, 6:41 AM

The coordinated response by NBAA, GAMA and business jet manufacturers to critics who chose to make business aircraft a high-profile symbol of all that’s wrong on Wall Street ranks as one of the biggest stories we covered in the last year–in part because of how successful the counter p.r. effort turned out to be.

The trouble all started with a report by ABC News correspondent Brian Ross the day after chief executives for Detroit’s embattled automakers flew to Washington, D.C., to ask for federal bailout money. The segment lasted less than four minutes, but by the time it was over the reputations of “luxurious private jets” and the CEOs who continued “lavish” lifestyles even as their companies failed lay in tatters as politicians and other news outlets latched onto one of the bigger side stories to emerge from the financial meltdown.

After the hearings on Nov. 18, 2008, Ross peppered the CEOs with questions about the companies’ airplanes. “Are you prepared to sacrifice your private jet, sir?” he asked of Ford’s Alan Mulally, who ducked out of the room without responding. “You’ve got your big jet parked here,” Ross said to GM CEO Rick Wagoner. “Could you not have flown commercial?” Wagoner muttered something about an earlier meeting before exiting.

The criticism didn’t stop with the automakers as the corporate jet fleets of other distressed firms came under intense media and political scrutiny.

In March last year NBAA and GAMA resurrected the “No Plane, No Gain” advocacy program, launching a series of television and newspaper ads that made the case for business aviation in terms the public could understand. NBAA president Ed Bolen was a frequent guest on TV news programs, where he hammered home the message that business aircraft are good for business. Behind the scenes, Bolen and GAMA president Pete Bunce pressed the politicians to stop bashing the industry, pointing out that it generates $150 billion a year and supports more than a million U.S. jobs. Leaders for the trade groups and business jet makers even asked White House officials to tone down the rhetoric.

The result has been a slowly but steadily improving image of business jets as reporters who only a year ago might have followed the bizjet-bashing crowd today are writing editorials pointing out how companies can benefit from corporate aircraft. NBAA, GAMA and the manufacturers deserve a good deal of the credit for helping to sway public opinion by presenting their side of the story.