Corporate Jets For the Rest of Us

  • Share
  • Read Later
A couple weeks ago, I got the red carpet treatment on an airplane. No, really. Okay, so the 'carpet' was actually a 2 ft. by 3 ft. rug slapped down at the bottom if the plane's stairs, but it really was red.

You see, I took a ride on the corporate shuttle.

I'll save you the trouble of hustling back to check my title: I'm not the CEO or the COO, I'm just a lowly reporter. But AOL Time Warner, my employer, is one of scores of companies that is realizing if it wants to get its workers somewhere on time and in decent shape, they've got to arrange delivery themselves.

So the company has contracted with a small airline to fly a 34-seat turbo-prop aircraft back and forth on a daily basis from near AOL's old headquarters in Northern Virginia to just outside Manhattan, where Time Warner's big guys work. Just show up, present your company ID and climb on board. It was a nice trip; since there were only five of us, the breakfast was excellent and we got in on time. The bus ride through New Jersey's Sopranoland on the way to New York City was interesting, too.

It's not just my company

Scores of large companies have likewise given up on the airlines. Charter jet services and fractional ownership deals — where a company or an individual buys a share of a plane but doesn't carry the steep costs of full ownership — are booming. 'Dedicated' shuttles have been around for years, but they too are expanding. Last year, for example, Proctor & Gamble found its employees were wasting so much time getting to Europe from Cincinnati that it started a transatlantic shuttle four times a week.

Granted, most of these trips are for the use of a company's top executives, and provide a speedy and secure way for managers to travel and get work done. (Although some bizjets are still abused for selfish excess. There's a reason why Warren Buffet named his corporate jet 'The Indefensible.') But, believe me, you'd be happier traveling to Tokyo on a top-of-the-line Gulfstream V than even the best first class airline seat. You can start with the fact that you'll probably get there faster. Add on that you can sit across from the person you really want to talk to, or work at your own table, or even send a fax. Then, of course, there's the air. Inside the plane, I mean. Gulfstreams pressurize the cabin as if you're at 6,000 feet rather than the 8,000 feet that on most commercial flights. That not might seem like much of a difference. But after ten hours on a plane, you're breathing easier. And best of all, if you get bored you can chat with the pilot and check out the cockpit!

The big airlines are getting involved too

Now it looks as if some airlines are giving up on airlines. Two of the world's biggest, and some thought best, carriers are admitting that they're not satisfying their top-flight customers, and they're going to do better. United Airlines and British Airways have announced plans to form business jet units to cater to the Gulfstream crowd. This news comes even as BA is expected to bring its Concorde back into service by the fall. United last week at the Paris Air Show said it would buy Gulfstreams (as well as French-built Dassaults) for its bizjet fleet.

BA is working with European charter company Air Partner to create the creatively titled "Business Jets", which will let passengers rent upscale planes — and get frequent flyer miles. The idea is to keep premium travelers on BA's main routes, and then get them to hire a small, BA-sponsored plane for the shorter trips. United, on the other hand, has created a miniUnited under its corporate umbrella, but with a different sensibility-and target market than the one the giant U.S. carrier usually goes after. The miniUnited is expected to be up and running by 2006 with more than 100 business jets, mostly for use inside the U.S. Industry experts are skeptical that the company, which struggled with labor troubles and record-setting delays last year, has the management talent and focus to make the business unit a success. Both airlines will have the unfortunate challenge of going up against the already existing fractional jet companies that dominate the market, including the company that essentially started the business, Columbus, Ohio-based NetJets.

There are couple other similar ideas out there percolating: a group of British businessmen is trying to start Blue Fox Executive Airlines, which would fly a Boeing 767, a large commercial jet, reconfigured to all-business class back and forth from London to New York. Virgin Atlantic Airways' CEO Richard Branson has mused that he might start 'Virgin JetSet,' which would fly 20-seat bizjets on certain valuable routes like London-Dubai or London-Los Angeles.

My tip? I say buy stock in that company that makes red carpets.