Tool or toy?
Discussing ethical use of business jets with Taylor Guitars cofounders Kurt Listug and Bob Taylor for this issue’s cover story was refreshing. These are guys who really get it. In fact, they get it so profoundly that they have difficulty fathoming how anyone doesn’t intuitively grasp what constitutes appropriate use of a business airplane. Taylor told me that he has had people ask him for “a ride” on his company’s Gulfstream G450, as if it were a speedboat. “That can be an opening for a conversation about what a business jet is,” he said with a chuckle.
It’s a frustrating, never-ending struggle for the business aviation industry. To an overwhelming percentage of the general population, any aircraft without an airline logo is a luxury for the pretentious elite. Passengers alighting from business jets are assumed to be thumbing their noses at the masses of shoeless zombies trudging through the airline terminal on the other side of the runway.
To counter that image, private aviation industry trade groups promote stories like that of Taylor Guitars—stories that show, for example, how private aviation enriches a small business’s bottom line, enables a job-rich factory to locate in a rural area, or stimulates an untapped market. But those stories fall on mostly deaf ears, as do tales of business jet operators serving humanity with disaster-relief missions to Haiti, medical flights via Corporate Angel Network, and free transportation for heroes-in-need through the Veteran’s Airlift Command.
Part of the problem for the industry is that the general public associates private jet travel largely with the relatively few but often high-profile users who are simply paying for the opulent ride that they can afford. What’s not well understood is that thousands of corporate aircraft serve economically justifiable business missions and that a clear dividing line exists between the privileges of a private aircraft owner and the responsibilities incumbent on an officer of a public company.
Someone who owns an airplane personally and operates it on his or her dime (OK, maybe more than a dime) is entitled to treat that airplane as private transportation. But someone who works for a corporation that owns an airplane, even the CEO, is not only beholden to stockholders to use the company asset appropriately but also has a legal responsibility to follow specific guidelines. Those rules were clarified as part of the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley law that defines the ethics of corporate accounting.
A corporate airplane isn’t meant to be a perk of the job. It exists to allow businesspeople to accomplish missions on behalf of the company that would not be possible without it. Yes, it’s more convenient and pleasant to travel on a business jet than it is to ride on airliners, but that ought to allow the passengers to accomplish more—not simply to fly in greater comfort. And like Taylor Guitars’ founders, the boss can encourage any employee with a legitimate reason for going along to strap in to one of the empty seats.
Business success depends largely on building relationships, and corporate aircraft can do more for person-to-person contact than just about any other asset. Whether it’s visiting your top 100 distributors, as Taylor Guitars’ Listug did when he first began flying privately, or spending invaluable time aloft with clients, partners, and employees, there is a human value to corporate aircraft flying that has no equivalent.
Mark Phelps is a private pilot and a managing editor at BJT sister publication Aviation International News.