Why the Big Three Should Fly Corporate Jets

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TIM SLOAN / AFP / Getty Images

From left, United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger, General Motors CEO Richard Wagoner Jr., Chrysler CEO Robert Nardelli and Ford Motor Company CEO Alan Mulally wait to testify in November 2008

When the heads of the Detroit Three auto companies return to Washington this week to testify before Congress about their restructuring plans, they won't be traveling on their corporate jets. Not after the story broke on Nov. 19 that they had flown their "luxurious" aircraft to Washington to beg for $25 billion in loans to keep their companies afloat. Official Washington was outraged at the extravagance. Columnists and comics were ever so grateful for the gift. "I mean, couldn't you all have downgraded to first class or jet-pooled or something to get here?'' whined Representative Gary Ackerman of New York.

This from a legislative body that has raised money-wasting to an art form. It wasn't too long ago that members of Congress often mistook corporate aircraft for the Congressional Airline. "Hitching" a ride on corporate jets was such a regular event, and so abused a privilege, that eventually the solons had to stop themselves. There was nothing to stop Senator John McCain from using his wife's jet to make dozens of campaign stops this year, contravening but not breaking election laws because he, or at least Mrs. McC, "owned" the aircraft through a family company. (Read "The Ripple Effect of a Potential GM Bankruptcy.")

It was pointed out that the three could have flown commercial that morning for something like $212 each. But let's do the math. Three CEOs being paid millions a year each are going to Washington on a business trip to try to save $300 billion worth of sales and 3 million jobs — and they are supposed to risk all of that on Northwest or US Air, a.k.a. Northworst and Useless Air, formerly Allegheny a.k.a. Agony Air? I see the connection: you fly to D.C. on a previously bankrupt airline as you contemplate the bankruptcy of your own company. The experience should be enough to scare you into devising a scheme to save your own company from such a fate. But wouldn't this be a case of America's worst-run manufacturing companies relying on America's worst-run service companies? There'd be a 50% to 75% chance of the CEOs showing up on time. What are you supposed to do, call Congress and tell them you're on a gate hold?

ABC milked the story for all it was worth, as any news organization would do. But ABC's VIPs are not strangers to corporate jets. This week there's ABC's Charlie Gibson interviewing George Bush on Marine One, the helicopter the President uses to get out of town to Camp David. You think Charlie took Amtrak to Washington to meet the President? Even if he did, it's fairly routine for the networks to ferry their precious anchors around by private jet these days. (And while we're at it, why can't Bush take a carpool to Camp David? This nation isn't exactly flush, and he's not exactly essential any more. Doesn't the Secret Service own an armored Suburban?)

And don't expect the honchos at Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC, to be arriving for the Obama Inaugural festivities via United or American. Disney, like any self-respecting media company, owns or leases aircraft to get its own VIPs around. They're not going to let Miley Cyrus slum it on Southwest. The privileged would include Bob Iger, Disney's CEO. The company spent more than $65,000 in 2007 on Iger's personal travel aboard corporate aircraft, and it requires him to fly corporate when he's on business. Disney extends the private-jet perk to other top officers as well as directors attending meetings and other company events. Nice. Yes, Iger is having a way better year than the Detroit Three — would you rather own High School Musical or Buick?

But the issue here is that most of the Fortune 500 boards require the boss to fly in the corporate jet. And why not? What's the point of achieving the big corner office, knifing all those people on your way to the top, if you don't have the ultimate travel ticket? You might as well stop at divisional vice president. That should be no less true for the Detroit Three. Ford boss Alan Mulally left an aircraft company, Boeing, to take the top job at the auto company — the man is used to big jets.

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