Flying ‘under the radar’

Jan 3, 2016 - 3:45 PM

Business aviation and privacy go hand in hand for good reasons, says our columnist.

Some people in the general aviation industry object to the term “private flying,” on the theory that it suggests to the general public that we must have something nefarious to hide. I understand the concern, though I’ve never thought of it that way, any more than I’ve thought “private property” signs in a driveway implied the people living there were up to no good.

To me, “private” simply distinguishes personally owned turf or devices or personal activity from those meant to be accessible to everyone—like the difference between a community swimming pool and the one in your own backyard. To most people, “flying” means sitting amidst strangers on a crowded airliner. So “private flying” is a simple way to differentiate.

For many people who can afford to travel on business jets, privacy is a big advantage, and it has nothing to do with keeping something illicit under wraps. Some of these passengers need to use their time in flight to discuss confidential business matters. And some are easily recognized in public airline terminals, which can get tiresome.

I admit to being part of that problem. Several years ago, I was at a United Airlines gate in Orlando, Florida, headed home, when I recognized that the guy standing close by, also waiting to board, was New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. Before he had arrived at the gate, there had been a slight delay as agents assisted a passenger in a wheelchair, and Cashman asked me whether I knew why we weren’t boarding yet. I told him what was going on; and then figured that made us best buddies. So I felt OK asking, “Are you who I think you are?” He was polite—even after hearing I’m a Red Sox fan—but I could tell he wished I hadn’t recognized him. After a brief exchange, I discreetly let him be.

A front-office executive like Cashman might hope to slip by unnoticed (he was even flying coach), but many of his ballplayers wouldn’t be so lucky. And for those in the forefront of the entertainment industry, for example, it’s even worse. Just getting from the security checkpoint to the gate could take hours. So the privacy element of private flying can be a significant benefit, indeed.

Once on board, an exhausted athlete or performer may have to cope with requests for autographs and selfies. And there’s always the chance of having a video of them snoring going viral on social media.

When you’re traveling with colleagues, the benefits of privacy extend to the opportunity to meet, review and plan in confidence—or just in an atmosphere of peace and quiet. That perk is usually thought of in the business context, but flying privately can also be a great opportunity for musicians to jam together on a new arrangement, or brainstorm a technique. Impromptu rehearsals in business jet passenger lounges are not unheard of, and sometimes the best ideas crop up unplanned.

Pilots, flight attendants and other personnel at aircraft charter operators and private airport terminals are trained to respect passengers’ privacy and not intrude on their solitude. That’s not to say there is never any interaction, but the default rule is to treat celebrity passengers with the deference, respect and discretion they’ve paid for and deserve. Even other passengers are usually considerate of privacy when they spot a recognizable face in the passenger lounge of an FBO.

Then again, there are celebrities who just love receiving attention. But they’ll usually let you know.


Mark Phelps is a private pilot and a managing editor at BJT sister publication Aviation International News.