Since the beginning of the economic crisis, European company executives flying in business jets largely have escaped being singled out as fat cats as infamously happened to the bosses of America’s big-three automakers when they flew from Detroit to Washington in three separate jets to ask for federal handouts in November 2008. In some respects this is strange, given Europe’s generally more left-leaning political complexion, but it may illustrate that business aviation has retained a very low profile on this side of the Atlantic. Paradoxically, there have been more cases of politicians being lambasted for private jet use over here.
Late in 2008, the European business aviation industry braced for negative publicity as a potential reaction to the controversy in the U.S. In an attempt to head off criticism, early in 2009 European Business Aviation Association chief executive Brian Humphries sent a letter to the editors of Europe’s leading newspapers strongly endorsing business aviation as a productivity tool at a time when most of Europe had followed America into recession. Around the same time, Dassault Aviation, Europe’s only business jet manufacturer, started spending some of its public relations budget on the same effort.
But, as it happened, almost none of the anticipated negative publicity about the alleged excessive use of business jets by corporate executives in Europe materialized. “In fact, business aviation barely exists in the public’s eyes,” Gil Roy, a leading general aviation expert in France and the founder of the aerobuzz.fr Web site, told AIN. Even though business aviation in Europe has grown a lot over the past decade, its acceptance is still far from what it is in the U.S.
Here in Europe, most executives do not regard business aviation as a travel option. Of more concern, said Eric Dumas, manager of Lyon, France’s business airport, are younger CEOs who rarely consider business aviation as a mode of transportation. Indeed, when asked for an opinion, three employers’ associations–the French Medef, the UK’s Institute of Directors and the Confederation of British Industry– said they either had no opinion or did not return AIN’s phone calls.
Indeed, it may be that users’ attitudes are another reason the industry has not suffered from image- debasing stories. “In Europe we keep a low profile with our aircraft,” EBAA COO Pedro Vicente Azua told AIN. He pointed out that business
aircraft are generally smaller and less luxurious in Europe than those in the U.S. and so are harder to characterize as illdeserved perks.
Dumas agreed, saying that for those who use business aviation, “it is an option only when it is economical or really optimizes a CEO’s schedule.” As Azua noted,
a study released by Eurocontrol in 2008 showed that the city pairs served by business aviation in Europe are different from those served by airlines, so executives could hardly be accused of shunning the cheaper mode.
“Before the downturn, the European Commission did include business aviation in the picture, in a positive way,” Azua added. In 2008, the EC published a document entitled “An Agenda for a Sustainable Future in General and Business Aviation.” It recognized bizav’s role in “increasing the mobility of people, productivity of business and regional cohesion.” At the local level, EBAA members have reported slow but real progress in how local authorities support business aviation, Azua said.
Again striving to improve acceptance of business aviation, the EBAA commissioned a study by accounting house PriceWaterhouse Coopers that was released in 2009.
The EBAA wanted to document “the close relationship between business aviation and economic growth.” The report noted, for example, that in 2007 business aviation contributed 0.2 percent of combined GDP in the European Union, Norway and Switzerland, accounting for 164,000 jobs.
For EBAA, another area of concern in regard to image is the environment. “It is not a problem we have with the press but rather with the authorities,” Azua said.
European authorities, he said, have bought into a comparison with low-cost airlines, which are keen on citing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per passenger-mile as the overriding green benchmark– clearly a assessment that would undermine the green credentials of business aircraft.
The industry itself seems to be making progress in communications about and perception of its impact on the environment. In advertisements at least, aircraft cabins look more modest; Champagne bottles and flowers are replaced by laptop computers, BlackBerrys and notepads.