““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Restoring business aviation's image
A large and punishing backlash resulted after executives of the big-three automakers offered painfully naïve answers to questions about their corporate jet use on Nov. 18, 2008. The automakers were testifying before Congress, seeking billions in federal bailout funds, yet they didn't anticipate the response from the media and publicity-seeking politicians, who asked, essentially, "What on earth were you thinking, flying here in your private jets, asking for public money?"
The backlash reverberated so loudly with the public that two weeks later the automakers pledged to sell their jets, although they never said that they wouldn't fly privately anymore. [See
"Defending Your Jet," February/March 2009.-Ed.]
The timing of this PR fiasco couldn't have been worse: the recession had begun and the world's financial systems were on the brink of insolvency. Business aviation not only lost a huge amount of credibility with the public but also saw orders plummet, backlogs vanish and owners simply stop flying. The industry's situation was like that of a boxer, already reeling, getting one more thump on the noggin and getting knocked out, said Bill Boisture, chairman and CEO of aircraft manufacturer Hawker Beechcraft.
In addition to the automakers, the list of prominent companies that closed flight departments or vastly curtailed operations included such names as Sears, Wachovia, Brunswick, Citigroup, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Lucent. Financial firms clearly felt the brunt of pressure to sell aircraft.
The automakers' testimony "ignited a firestorm of political and media criticism," said Andrew Richmond, CEO of charter/management firm TWC Aviation in Van Nuys, Calif. "Literally overnight, it became inappropriate to fly on a private jet. For companies going through significant downsizing, the use of private jets looked even more insensitive. It created a 'let them eat cake' impression that executives were flying around the world in lavish private jets while their hard-working employees were losing their jobs."
The recession is officially over, however, and business aviation's image has arguably begun to improve. Owners are flying again, the pace of aircraft order cancellations has slowed and the perception of corporate jets as playthings of the rich appears to have moderated, thanks to efforts by industry groups and aviation businesses. Even a few politicians have jumped on business aviation's bandwagon, belatedly realizing that high-paying jobs in their districts are at stake.
The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) have led efforts to communicate the value of their industry. Their principal effort has been the No Plane, No Gain campaign, which the associations jointly launched last March "to educate the public on the importance of business aviation to our country and its communities, companies and citizens."
While it's difficult to assess the precise effect of efforts like No Plane, No Gain, NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen said that the campaign is having a "significant and positive impact." Last year, he noted, key policy- and opinion-makers spouted "disparaging and discouraging remarks about business aviation, particularly here in Washington." And federal bailout legislation was proposed that would have mandated disposal of business jets. By contrast, Congress more recently passed a resolution honoring the contributions that general aviation (which includes business aviation) has made to the U.S. Both the House and Senate have formed general aviation caucuses, each with more than 25 percent of members having "decided they want to be publicly identified as interested in and concerned about general aviation," Bolen said. These results, he explained, "suggest that our message is not just getting through, it's moving people to action."
One CEO who has spoken up for bizav is Rockwell Collins president and CEO Clayton Jones, who turned the table during Congressional testimony last February when he was asked how he had traveled to Washington. Jones elicited kudos instead of condemnation from the politicians when he explained that he had come via business jet- which is why he was able in a single day to attend a morning meeting in Florida; testify in Washington; meet with financial firms in New York; and then return to company headquarters in Iowa. This was a graphic example of how explanation and education can help, Bolen said.
"I can tell you that the industry is rebounding," said Marty Guinoo, CEO of charter broker and jet card provider Sentient Jet. "People are using business aviation to help them be more effective."
TWC Aviation's Richmond agreed, saying, "The worst of this pummeling appears to be over. Companies again are looking to private aviation to overcome the many challenges that commercial airlines cannot solve. I think the private aviation industry will keep expanding this year as the economy continues its recovery."
Added Tom Bressan, CEO of charter operator New Vectors Aviation in Chino, Calif.: "The private aviation image will improve over time as the perfect storm dissipates and memories fade."
A more important issue, said Dan Drohan, CEO of Petaluma, Calif.-based charter/management firm Solairus Aviation, "is how to engage the people in the back of the jets to help improve our plight. We've held our cards too tight to the chest about how much help we need. These are very politically powerful, wealthy and experienced people who trust us and want to see us succeed, and we want to find a way to tap into that knowledge."
Corporate pilot Ron Freswick echoed those comments. "We need CEOs and people that are at the top to come out and say, 'Yeah, we have a company jet or two or three and we use them and they make money for us.' The big companies that have made it through this recession and are coming out of it whole-their people should be laughing at these government lapdogs who want to ride on our jets and criticize us. I think our business leaders have to quit being afraid of these government idiots and say, 'We have a corporate jet and we use it to make money.'"
Aircraft manufacturers need to speak out, too, said Hawker Beechcraft's Boisture. "We are talking about creating a more positive atmosphere for relatively technical and well-paying U.S. jobs," he noted. "The risk of being silent is significant. [Aircraft] owners are influential people. They may be large employers and integral parts of city, state and national economies. Encouraging them to be in touch with their elected officials about business aviation and to make sure everybody understands this is an important part of our national transport system is to everybody's benefit."
Boisture, however, doesn't blame business aviation's ills solely on the political and media bashing. "Far and away, the recession is the major issue here," he said. "And I think that the negative political environment added at the margin to the pressure of the recession. The timing was incredibly bad. It accelerated the deceleration of our business."
It's important for the industry to participate in efforts like No Plane, No Gain, he added, noting, "There's huge competition in Washington for attention, and I think we're stronger asking for it collectively as opposed to individually and becoming fragmented."
Robert Stangarone, Cessna Aircraft vice president of corporate communications, expressed similar sentiments during a recent speech at the British Business and General Aviation Association Annual Conference. "Everyone in our industry should consider themselves ambassadors," he said. "Business aircraft are used in so many valuable ways and have truly become essential to the global transportation system. We need to take every opportunity to spread that message."
Joe Lombardo, president of General Dynamics unit Gulfstream Aerospace, heads GAMA's communications committee and thus is intimately involved with the issues of public perception of business aviation. "Some customers canceled orders because of the backlash [from the automakers' congressional testimony], especially in the financial market," Lombardo said. But, he added, the economy "had more of an influence on the deterioration of backlogs and rates of production and number of sales being brought in."
The GAMA/NBAA team's No Plane, No Gain project included sourcing a study on the benefits of business aviation by Nexa Advisors and developing the Business Aircraft e-Valuation Toolkit, which helps companies "calculate and explain the value a business aircraft brings to a company's overall business objectives." These products, said Lombardo, "help us become more proactive about the message. When we're getting hit hard, especially by Congress and the White House, the best thing we can do is educate them about jobs and the economy."
Lombardo agrees that aircraft owners ought to speak up, too. "There are some who have and are willing," he said. (Information on these companies and owners can be found at noplanenogain.org.) "I do believe we've been able to change some opinions in Congress and even the White House."
Gulfstream isn't cutting expenditures on new programs. "Even in a pretty bad economy we didn't back off on research and development, and the new G650 and G250 are proof of that," Lombardo recently told employees. "It's too bad when something like this gets in the way, but we'll recover and be stronger as a result."