A traveling salesman who is out of work and behind on his bills hears a knock at the door. He opens it to see a man standing on the front porch. “I’m here to get you back on your feet,” the man says. The salesman’s hopes are dashed, however, when he finds that the man is a tow truck driver there to repossess his car.
The joke may be funny, but for anyone down on their luck who relies on a vehicle to do their job, taking the vehicle away makes it exponentially more difficult to bounce back. Dare we say the same about a company and its business aircraft?
As we start to rebuild our economy after the coronavirus tidal wave finally begins to ebb, business aviation faces an age-old challenge. In times of financial distress, the company airplane (or fractional share, jet card, or charter account) is often the first casualty from the corporate budget. It’s also the last to find its way back. Often, however, it’s the mere appearance of excess rather than the bottom-line reality that drives the decision. And as an industry, we are partly to blame for bowing to those skewed optics.
I remember reading about a company in Florida that sold its light jet during one of the recent financial crises. In its public statement, the company admitted that the airplane was responsible for measurable revenue far beyond its cost. But management made the decision to sell so as not to “appear” to be fiscally irresponsible. Rather than publicly correcting the false impression that a business aircraft is just a luxury perk for its top executives, all too often a company will duck, absorb the hit to its profits from losing the services of business aviation, and carry on. Each time that happens, the stereotype gets that much more firmly entrenched.
Time after time, as an industry, we make the same mistake, running for cover in times of financial downturn and waiting for the barrage to blow over. We just seem to assume that no one outside the “family” has the capability to appreciate the true value of a business aircraft as we know it, so there’s no point in fighting back against the gold-plated image of “luxury jets.” Maybe the car analogy can help.
But you need to stick to comparing personal cars and trucks directly used for business purposes with turbine aircraft. It’s safe to assume that, starting with turboprop singles, the majority of general aviation aircraft are used—at least partially—in business applications.
This is a good place to consider the exceptions that constitute the grain of truth behind the public perception. Yes, there are expensive turbine aircraft that serve as purely personal transportation for some 0.01-percenters. This can and does extend all the way up to intercontinental large-cabin business jets. But it is the exception, rather than the rule. And it’s worth noting that, for publicly traded companies, personal use of corporate aircraft is strictly regulated—it has to be reported as compensation for tax purposes. While it would be naïve to believe these rules are never broken or stretched, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge that those who do so are, in fact, breaking the law. But in the vast majority of circumstances, business aircraft are just that—aircraft used as a tool to benefit the business.
NBAA, GAMA, NATA, and other trade associations are always on the lookout for unfairly inaccurate reports on business aviation, and they do a good job of responding. But we all need to pitch in to spread the word.
So, challenge the critics with this. Would they ask any on-the-road salesperson; a traveling home-improvement contractor; a retail-chain or restaurant district manager; a cleaning-service worker; a home inspector; or, say, a member of the clergy—to give up their company cars and work vans when times get hard? Should we expect them to make do with public transportation? That might be just an inconvenience in a city, but what would it be like if those professionals who served the suburbs or more rural areas lost their vehicle and had to wait for a bus or a train, get off at the closest stop, and then walk an hour or more to their destination? They’d be out of business in a hurry, and their customers would be without the service.
We in the business aviation field understand how this analogy fits. Yes, it's true that business aircraft are more comfortable than the airlines, just as an SUV is more comfortable than a city bus. But that’s secondary to the mission, just as having comfortable furniture and tasteful decor in your office complex is secondary to the main function of the building. The main benefit—and mission—of a pure business aircraft is productivity and return on investment.
We measure and confirm that return every day. Few flight departments would last long if they didn’t. So why can’t we make the same case in public?