Waypoints

Stop the bashing, start the building

November 1, 2011

Tom HainesSince the economic collapse of 2008, business aviation has been a lightning rod of controversy. Thoughtless auto executives who individually flew their corporate jets to Washington, D.C., to ask for corporate handouts turned tail and sulked home rather than stand and defend the role business aviation plays in the success of a company. The president and Congress piled on and now, more than three years later, the tarnish only thickens as the president continues trying to have it both ways on the aviation issue—using the jobs created by the aviation sector and its positive trade balance to bolster his economic posturing while weeks later decrying the “tax breaks” afforded aircraft purchasers in the form of accelerated depreciation. Those tax breaks are the same ones offered across the manufacturing spectrum and are not unique to aircraft. A sales official at Cessna reported that late 2010 and late 2011 sales bubbles are all related to the availability of accelerated depreciation. Carving out an exemption to the tax breaks for business aircraft manufacturers will only further erode the struggling GA manufacturing segment and accelerate a loss of jobs.

Meanwhile, corporate flying scrutiny continues through the controversial Blocked Aircraft Registration Request (BARR) program. Until recently, aircraft owners could ask that their registration number be blocked from disclosure when air traffic control data is distributed to public websites, such as FlightAware. Companies and individuals who didn’t want competitors or anyone else knowing where they were flying could request that their aircraft IDs be blocked. However, a group filed a lawsuit to remove the blocks so that, in theory, shareholders of publicly traded companies could trace the comings and goings of corporate airplanes. The group, like others who don’t really understand business aviation, claims all sorts of abuses by high-level executives. The Department of Transportation quickly caved and unblocked the IDs, forcing those who want to continue to have their numbers blocked to show that they have security concerns for their executives if their whereabouts are publicly known.

Sure, some corporate executives have abused the privilege of flying on corporate airplanes. On the other hand, having hung out with a few of those types, I can tell you that most successful executives work nearly 24/7 and if once or twice a year they want to use the company airplane to escape to an exotic respite, I’m OK with that because I know that even then—while en route and once there—they will undoubtedly be working. And, really, do you want a guy who—right or wrong—is paid $15 million a year to run a company standing in line at United and snaking through security with his shoes off at LaGuardia instead of actually doing something productive? Having ridden in the back of some of those company airplanes with those executives, I can attest to the fact that the airplanes are high-flying offices. People in the back discuss strategy for meetings at the next stop or recap the last meeting while catching up on email and checking in with the office—something not possible while spending hours waiting at the gate or sitting in coach with some stranger peering over your shoulder.

On the other hand, the scenario I just described actually represents the minority of business flights. Most business flights occur in small piston and turboprop airplanes going to small- and mid-size cities with midlevel and technical staff on board headed to some factory or to visit a customer. Richard Shine, CEO of Buffalo-based Manitoba Corporation, described for me in an AOPA Live video at AOPA Summit how his small company uses its aging Mitsubishi MU–2 turboprop to generate new business. About one day a week, the airplane is dispatched with sales staff on board who, over the course of a day, can meet with four to five customers or potential customers in two to three cities and be back in time for the staff to be in the office the next morning. Try that on the airlines. Shine, who is not only CEO but also chief pilot, insists that his company would not exist as it does today were it not for the benefits afforded by the use of business aircraft.

As Shine visits prospects in his Mitsubishi, should his competitors be able to track his every move—as they can with BARR removed? If so, then let’s publish the comings and goings of everyone who travels on the interstate highway system—another federally funded and maintained transportation system, like the air traffic control system. With the preponderance of electronic toll-collecting devices on cars and trucks these days, the publishing of such data should be easy. Next step, if you work for a public company, you get an embedded transponder placed behind your ear.

Congress and the White House, how about this: Instead of bashing business aviation while you yourselves take advantage of it, let’s recognize the efficiency of using aviation for business and showcase the jobs it creates, the positive trade balance it generates, and the many public benefit flights it makes. And let’s work together to educate those who through ignorance or for political gamesmanship refuse to acknowledge the benefits of flying for business.

Email the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org; follow on twitter.com/tomhaines29. Editor in Chief Tom Haines flies his Beechcraft Bonanza A36 for business and pleasure.