Oh, my. The National Business Aviation Association has gone all defensive-crouchy today in reaction to what seems to me to have been very legitimate ridicule of the three Detroit CEOs' use of three private jets in November to make the 90-minute flight to Washington to argue for the $25 billion bailout (which seems to have inflated in price to $34 billion in a few short weeks).
It has been clearly stipulated here -- on numerous occasions -- that business jets make eminent sense as productivity tools for certain companies in specific situations and for exactly the reasons that the N.B.A.A. points out. Every company I know that uses them employs a mix of flight options -- commercial and private -- for carefully defined business reasons, including the need to get a crucial employee -- or team of employees -- to and from a destination, at the best value in terms of time spent on the road, and direct productivity.
Below is the N.B.A.A. e-mail to its members today, reiterating the case for the smart use of business aviation.
But the N.B.A.A. overlooks the issue at hand, because the use of business jets in this particular circumstance by the Detroit CEOs, swanning into Washington in Gulfstream splendor in these awful economic times to demand taxpayer bailouts, was just plain stupid -- worse, even, than the insurance giant A.I.G.'s half-million-dollar-plus hotel bill for a sales retreat at a St. Regis hotel in California, a mere week after A.I.G. got its own federal bailout.
The word for this in public relations is "optics" -- that is, a cognizance of the appearance of the thing.
"Optics," as any luxury hotel owner will tell you right now, is the reason lots of high-level corporate travelers are now staying at the Sheraton rather than that five-star hotel they stayed at till Wall Street sank the economy. Because of possible public perception, many are staying downscale for the time being, even though they may have utterly justifiable reason -- service, location, etc. -- to stay at the five-star.
Obviously, the Detroit automakers realized the optics problem of the company jets for use on a short hop to the capital, because when the Detroit grandees came back to Washington this week, they all drove cars. (And held forth in arranged media phone interviews on the road.) Why they didn't simply do the smart thing, which is fly commercial, is a question that can only be answered by the PR geniuses who make Detroit the special place it is.
Shortly after I first got into this end of the reporting business in early 1999, I began doing occasional stories on business aviation, which fascinated me.
Business aviation was at the time digging itself out from an economic slump that was partly the result of public attitudes toward scandalous abuses in the use of corporate jets in the 1980s. Remember the buccaneer RJR Nabisco chief F. Ross Johnson parading around golf buddies and even flying his poodle to join the family vacation, as he and other executives treated the company fleet of 10 jets -- known as the RJR Air Force -- like personal toys?
In 2000, when the business aviation industry was showing early signs of the spectacular recovery and growth period it was about to enter, I asked the then-president of the N.B.A.A., Jack Olcott, about that public perception, and resulting decline in business-jet sales that it had helped cause.
"To a certain extent the [business-jet] community brought this upon itself" with those abuses, he said, adding: "The excesses of the '80s were really only very limited examples, but they received tremendous media attention."
The N.B.A.A. statement (below) had the opportunity to make that point about the very limited example the automaker CEOs set.
Alas, it does not, and instead calls the perfectly legitimate media reaction to the extremely bad judgment of the Detroit CEOs "sensationalist." But I nevertheless suggest that anyone interested in this issue go to the N.B.A.A. web site and read the background material on the industry, which makes a very good case -- Detroit aside.
"Dear NBAA Member,
In light of the recent, overwhelming news coverage of the Big 3 auto executives' use of business aircraft, and the hearings on Capitol Hill this week related to the auto industry, I wanted to make you aware of NBAA's work to advocate for the business aviation community in the current environment.
As we know, the news coverage of the auto executives' use of business aviation, now in its third week, has taken a sensationalist view of not only the use of business aircraft by the Big 3, but the utilization of business aviation for any company, anywhere. As companies that use business aircraft know, these assets are essential business tools that provide enormous value to companies and their shareholders. Historically, studies – including those commissioned by NBAA – have reinforced this long-held view.
Like everyone else in our industry, NBAA has been frustrated by the mischaracterizations of business aviation that have been put forward, and we've been responding forcefully. As the story has unfolded, we have given interviews to a whole host of news outlets to correct misperceptions, inform reporters' understanding of our industry, and give context to the coverage. While we can't guarantee that our comments will be accurately portrayed or even included in every story, we have nevertheless pressed our case with CBS News, USA Today, National Public Radio, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Associated Press, Business Week, and many others – we are even talking with overseas news outlets.
Additionally, we're reaching out to news organizations, putting the resources in their hands that clearly explain why thousands of companies of all sizes, all across the U.S. look to business aviation as a solution to their transportation challenges, especially in a challenging economy. The information we've given the media is available on an online resources page that can be accessed from NBAA's redesigned web site, www.nbaa.org, or at NBAA's Media Backgrounder page at www.nbaa.org/news/backgrounders.
Of course, NBAA staff alone can't always respond to every negative story in every newspaper in the country, local television show, or posting on the Internet. Your participation is also needed, so that news organizations understand the true face of business aviation, and why it is so important not only for the businesses that rely on it, but also for supporting the growth of jobs, investment and economic activity in places across the country. If you're planning to write a letter to your local newspaper editor, or weigh in on the Internet, we hope the resources we've made available on our web site can also be used to help you assemble your comments.
Obviously, we'll continue to vigorously defend the industry as this story evolves. And as always, we welcome your thoughts and suggestions.
President and CEO
National Business Aviation Association"