Defending our industry: some context

 - January 17, 2020, 2:05 PM

“There’s a reason why they call it a business jet.”

That’s how Bob Taylor, co-founder of Taylor Guitars, described how he explained to a friend that, no, he could not “go for a ride” in the company’s Gulfstream G450. After I interviewed Taylor and co-founder Kurt Listug for a profile in Business Jet Traveler a few years ago, the National Business Aviation Association literally made them poster examples of responsible use of a business jet.

Taylor and Listug use the company airplane to maximize their Taylor Guitars’ bottom line, and that’s all. Unfortunately, though, they are the antithesis of what most of the public sees as the typical business jet traveler. They didn’t order fancy linens for the cabin; they don’t use the airplane to try to impress friends or even clients; and if they ever fly for personal travel (which is practically never), they adhere staunchly to the financial rules outlined by the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, written to crack down on corporate fraud, including illegal personal use of company aircraft.

To Taylor and Listug, asking to “go for a ride” in the Gulfstream is as illogical as asking if you could stop by the guitar factory and play around with the milling lathes.

I really wish they could be around to explain how business aviation really works when 99 percent of the public reads stories about how private flying is nothing more than a perk for the ultra-elite class. Even The Economist, which I usually rely on for unbiased reporting, has published articles decrying business flying as a perk enabling elite billionaires to “save a little time.”

The current trend toward near-universal “flight-shaming” has been in place for decades when it comes to flying on privately-operated jets. But I believe that if the average person understood the way business aviation really works, they wouldn’t be so quick to condemn. It’s all about the optics, and we, as an industry, have not done a good job of keeping that lens in focus.

Whenever a bizav-related dust-up makes the news, as with the infamous case of Detroit’s big three automakers flying their corporate jets to Washington to discuss a government bailout, most other end-users go completely dark on the topic until the story fades into the next news cycle. That strategy may be effective in the short term, but over time, each such episode has added another, thicker layer to the distorted image of elitism.

Rarely does anyone peek over the rim of the foxhole to defend their use of business aircraft, even when it is clearly demonstrable that the flexibility and efficiency of business flying enables the company to prosper, much as a personal automobile is more efficient than public transportation.

There have been exceptions where steely-nerved business aviation users have spoken out; notably in the 1980s when then-Chrysler president Lee Iacocca, faced with cutting costs to the bone, publically singled out the company jet as an untouchable resource, vital to completing the recovery. (To appreciate how dire Chrysler’s straits were, one running joke at the time was: “The good news: Frank Sinatra has agreed to appear in Chrysler ads for a full year for the token fee of one dollar. The bad news: Chrysler is unable to raise the dollar.”)

In another case, billionaire “Oracle of Omaha” Warren Buffett, known for his no-frills lifestyle, famously spoke out in support of the effective business case for corporate jets, changing the name of his Bombardier Challenger from “The Indefensible” to “The Indispensible.”

More recently, when Elton John provided a jet to fly England’s Prince Harry and his family to visit the singer at his home in Nice, France, the uproar was louder than the crowd at one of his concerts. But the Rocket Man didn’t shrink from his actions, tweeting: “Prince Harry’s mother, Diana Princess of Wales was one of my dearest friends. I feel a profound sense of obligation to protect Harry and his family from the unnecessary press intrusion that contributed to Diana’s untimely death. To maintain a high level of much-needed protection, we provided them with a private jet flight.”

Sir Elton added: “To support Prince Harry’s commitment to the environment, we ensured their flight was carbon neutral, by making the appropriate contribution to Carbon Footprint.”

There is a real climate crisis, and objections to gratuitous flying are not without merit. But it’s important to grasp the context, and to be able to explain it when the optics of irresponsible jetsetters blow the picture out of proportion. Here are some facts that can help you to speak up when business aviation comes under attack:

According to the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), air travel of all kinds contributes 2 percent of all fossil fuel-related carbon emissions, compared with 74 percent for surface travel. Business and personal aviation are responsible for only 10 percent of that, or 0.2 percent of the 36 gigatons of CO2 generated annually by all fossil fuels.

Further, every new generation of jet engines has reduced fuel burn by double-digit percentages. ATAG notes that today’s emissions are 80-percent less than the first passenger jets from the 1960s. The motivation for this is not all altruism. Business aviation wants to burn less fuel because it makes flying more affordable.

Putting this in analogous “budget” terms; if our annual carbon “spending” were translated to $1,000, we would be allocating $740 for surface travel and $20 for aviation; and $2 of that $20 would be going to private flying, including business and personal flying.