By JOE SHARKEY
AFTER two years, “business jet” no longer sounded disreputable.
Then last week, the nonprofit investigative reporting organization ProPublica released a report, which was published in USA Today. The report identified fliers of corporate jets who had been hiding their use of those aircraft.
After a 15-month battle, the Federal Aviation Administration released to ProPublica a list of about 1,100 private aircraft whose flights have been blocked from public view. The flights are hidden even though basic information on every passenger flight – including aircraft number, departure and destination – is routinely published in real time by the F.A.A. and available on flight-tracking sites like FlightAware.com.
According to the ProPublica report, those hiding use of private jets included the insurer American International Group, the restaurant chain Hooters, a televangelist, some colleges and several media companies – among them (oops) Gannett, the publisher of USA Today.
The rationale cited for hiding flights is security. That is, a corporate spy could deduce information about sensitive deals from a company’s comings and goings in that big Gulfstream. The companies also persuaded the F.A.A. that making flight information public could expose executives on the company jet to personal safety risks.
Of course, a cynic might suspect that hiding the use of a corporate jet is probably driven as much by a desire to deflect public anger as by the need to protect some company executive. No one, after all, can forget that top executives of the three major American automakers flew their big corporate jets to Washington when they appealed for aid from Congress in 2008. The public fury over that helped to knock down the already struggling business aviation industry.
But private aviation is beginning to climb back. A UBS research report in February said that private aviation had now become a “stable market, after two years of deterioration.” Business jet flights were up 5 percent in December, the first monthly increase since mid-2007, UBS said.
Meanwhile, in the commotion about abuse of corporate jets, it’s easy to overlook the genuinely sensible argument for business aviation. As commercial air service shrinks, with even some midsize markets losing much of their air service, the business use of a company airplane can make bottom-line sense.
Take Jimmy John Liautaud, the founder of the restaurant chain Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches, which has about 1,000 franchises around the country. Mr. Liautaud’s company owns two jets, a Challenger 300 with coast-to-coast range, and a smaller Learjet 40. He also uses Flexjet, the business jet fractional-ownership and charter company, to buy hourly time on another Learjet when he needs extra capacity. Mr. Liautaud says his employees take commercial flights when that makes sense. But the fast-paced nature of his business also argues for using the company jets every day.
“Also, at least once a week, I’ll fly my airplanes two shifts in a day,” he told me. “We’ll have a shift leave at 6 in the morning and they’ll come back at 9 o’clock at night, and then I might have an audit team go out at 10 o’clock at night and they’ll come back at 10 the next morning. My airplanes are necessary machines, as necessary to this business as our meat slicers.”
The public image of business aviation is often of a corporate fat cat soaring above the rest of us, luxuriously sipping Champagne while we, the road warriors, wedge knees into some dreadful regional jet, worried about making that connection in Houston. Unfortunately for the industry, the fat-cat image is occasionally true – and attempts by companies to hide their use of private jets only bolster that impression.
But most business aviation, whether in jets, turboprops or piston-driven planes, involves workaday flights like the ones Jimmy John’s dispatches to keep those sandwiches moving.
“We’re opening a new restaurant just about every other day,” Mr. Liautaud said. “Our real estate specialists are based in four different places in the country, and then we have a staff of construction people who have to be on site for any new franchise. Our people tend to leave at 6 in the morning and come back home 14 hours later, so they have a very high-productivity day. But with the company planes, they can sleep in their own beds at night.”
Source: NEW YORK TIMES