Publication:Johnson City Press; Date:Nov 21, 2008; Section:Nation/Washington; Page Number:7B

For many CEOs, private jets the only way to fly


    Some in Congress pounced this week on what they view as the hypocrisy of auto executives flying on corporate jets to Washington to ask for public help. Corporations insist riding on private planes is not a lavish perk, but rather a necessary security requirement for top officials that also helps them be more efficient.

    Maybe the CEOs of America’s Big Three automakers should have driven to Washington to ask for $25 billion in public money.

    Flying there on corporate jets raised the ire of lawmakers. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, said in Washington that “these guys flying in their big corporate jets doesn’t send a good message to people in Searchlight, Nev., or Las Vegas or Reno or anyplace in this country.”

    As it turns out, that’s how executives at many — but not all — big companies often get around.

    About 11,000 U.S. companies operate jets or powerful prop planes, and more use smaller planes, said Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association. He said companies like their chief executives to be productive and to have access to phones and e-mail during flights. And if, say, the CEO and chief financial officer are flying together to meet with investors, they can talk about their company’s books without worrying they’ll be overheard, he said.

    There are some notable exceptions. Intel Corp., known for an egalitarian work culture where everyone has cubicles, has long told both executives and rank-and-file to fly coach. Intel executives rack up enough frequent-flier miles for regular upgrades to the front of the plane, though, so it’s not often they’re spotted in coach. Intel also charters private planes for executives traveling abroad, if the company believes there’s a security threat or to save time on busy trips.

    Many large companies require their executives to use company planes for all corporate, and even personal, travel.

    General Motors Corp. spokesman Tom Wilkinson said its top three executives are required to use a company plane. He said several people were on its flight to Washington this week, though it wasn’t full.

    Corporate budget-cutters have taken notice of those shiny jets. Building products maker Lousiana-Pacific Corp. said on Tuesday it eliminated its two planes and support staff. Wilkinson said GM, which leases its planes rather than owning them, once had seven planes and eliminated two planes in December, and will cut two more soon. He said the company has also cut about half of the staff of its corporate aviation program.

    He said that while it might have looked bad to fly private jets to Washington to ask for loans to save the business, flying commercial had risks, too.