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Saturday, Mar 2, 2024

Aviation Battles a Black Eye

Already struggling with reduced orders, workforce cuts, and a drop in charter flights, the last thing the business aviation industry needed was a poor public image. That’s exactly the position the industry finds itself in seen either as a legitimate target of executive excess in a recession or a scapegoat of misdirected outrage depending on which side of the argument one stands. It’s an issue that everyone has an opinion on, from President Barack Obama chastising Citigroup for spending $50 million on a new jet on down to anonymous comments at blogs and news websites. Cartoonist Scott Adams got his say in his business-oriented comic “Dilbert” when the character Dogbert gets grilled at a Congressional bailout hearing over using a corporate jet and exposes the hypocrisy of his questioners in the process. Critics portray the use of private planes as an unnecessary perk at a time when companies are putting their workers on the unemployment lines. Industry supporters counter that aircraft manufacturers and support services provide needed jobs and those planes are a business tool that increase efficiency and give a competitive edge. What is not in disagreement is when the industry received its black eye. That was the November flight by the heads of the Big Three automakers aboard private jets to Washington, D.C. to make their case for a federal bailout. What the three had little to say about was their justification of their transportation choice. “They sat there like a deer in headlights and led with the chin with the absence of a response,” said Steve Lassetter, president of Sun Air Jets based at the Camarillo Airport. Since then, the industry continued to get knocked around. Citigroup backed off buying their new jet after taking flack from Obama and others. In March, JPMorgan Chase was cast as a corporate villain over plans to buy two jets and construct a new hangar at the Westchester Airport outside New York City. General Motors and Chrysler gave up their corporate jets in exchange for federal bailout money. Other than the high profile examples, industry professionals admit it is hard to pinpoint lost business or aircraft cancellations as being due to the poor economy or the bad image. The reputation that business aviation developed over the past seven months has certainly exacerbated the poor business climate brought on by the recession, said Ed Bolen, president of the National Business Aviation Association. To counter the negative stereotypes Bolen’s group joined with the General Aviation Manufacturers Association on a public relations campaign called “No Plane, No Gain” to educate the public on the value of business aviation. “What we are trying to do is tell the full and complete story of business aviation and not be defined by an unrepresentative stereotype that I think was being promoted following the automobile manufacturers (appearance before Congress),” Bolen said. The benefits touted by the “No Plane, No Gain” website include not just the jobs and economic development but also the access the planes give to small and medium-sized markets not served by commercial airlines, and the use of the planes for humanitarian reasons. In September 2005, Louisiana residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina, for example, arrived at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank aboard private charter jets. For Valley companies and business owners the benefits of either chartering or owning aircraft come in the form of time savings and access to clients. Once a year, the president and vice president of manufacturing at Bobrick Washroom Equipment in North Hollywood charter a plane to visit its North American factories. With the plants scattered in four locations, it is too many to fly commercial affordably. “There’s one in Canada, in upstate New York, in Tennessee, and Oklahoma,” said company CFO Jerald Otchis. “They use a charter jet for one trip.” As an insurance agent serving aviation clients, Elliot Sanders finds his Beechcraft prop plane is a natural form of transportation. With the plane, making appointments with clients becomes easier because driving time does not have to be factored into the schedule. If he wants to set up a 3 p.m. meeting in Torrance or Orange County, he can. “Not many people are willing to make that drive,” Sanders said. “We fly over the top of it in 16 to 17 minutes. It is a luxury that allows me to use the plane to get rid of the traffic issues.” Sun Air in Camarillo works primarily with corporate flight departments and if they have scaled back their travel patterns it’s more due to cost cutting than a response to the industry’s poor image. Still, there is a general feeling among those flight departments of just wanting to lay low and wait for the economy to turn around, Lassetter said. The image problems may turn out to be a short-term aggravation for business aviation; that when conditions improve the general public may do less finger pointing and pay less attention to how executives travel. After all, oil companies tend to come under the most fire for billion dollar profits when gas costs $4 a gallon. Cut that price in half and the complaints evaporate. The “No Plane, No Gain” campaign has resulted in the realities of the industry crowding out the unfair stereotypes, NBAA’s Bolen said. A group of 70 mayors wrote a letter to President Obama supporting business aviation, and the industry now has its own caucus on Capitol Hill. More people are willing to speak out, whether about the jobs in general aviation or the connections made to the marketplace, Bolen said. “We hope to be able to keep this going so people understand the value of business aviation to our country,” Bolen said.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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