1091 Who are the main users of business aircraft and why will they not challenge overtly the negative image of the industry?

Kate Sarsfield/London

Gazing across the tarmac at one of the UK's leading international airports, my eyes are drawn to a variety of unliveried and unbranded business aircraft. My host hesitantly informs me of the ownership of each aircraft, but warns that this information must not be published. "People have private aircraft for only one reason - because they want to remain private," he says.

The images of business aircraft as toys for the idle rich, objects of glamour and admirals' barges have dogged this popular sector of aviation for many years. "These aircraft are considered sexy by so many influential people," says a manager of one fixed base operator, but do business aircraft deserve this unhelpful stereotype? Who are the main customers inthis burgeoning market, and for what purposes are most of the aircraft used?

Typical users

According to statistics from Wichita, Kansas-based AvData, 12,157 operators flew 18,308 turbine powered aircraft worldwide in 1997. Over 60% of these operators (7,611) and aircraft (11,798) are located in the USA. Europe is home to the second largest concentration, with 1,228 operators and 2,011 aircraft, and the rest of the world lays claim to the remainder.

The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), representative body for the US business aviation industry, says most business aircraft operations are business-related. The Washington DC-based Association's 5,200 members operate or support nearly 7,000 aircraft. Of these, more than 60% are used to support efficiency schedules, says the NBAA, "allowing employees to fly directly to their destinations" in a fraction of the time it would take by scheduled carriers, and more than 25% of the aircraft are used to reach remote locations not served by the airlines.

"Perhaps 30 years ago, when the term business jet carried a certain exotic cachet, business travel was still considered exciting, or even a little titillating - no more," says the NBAA.

Long haul trucking

Gainey owns a network of long haul trucking companies across the USA. The Grand Rapids, Michigan-based company was set up in 1984, and now has a turnover of $300 million. Its first aircraft, a Bombardier Learjet 31A, was acquired in November 1993 and a Cessna CitationJet was added three years later. "There is no way we would have grown to this extent without one - what takes us about one day to visit six or seven locations would take us nearly a week by scheduled airline," says Gainey vice-president of finance Larry Carrier.

The company, which now operates the CitationJet and Raytheon BeechJet until it takes delivery of the 1,000th Hawker - a Raytheon Hawker 800XP - at the end of the year, flies each aircraft for about 350h a year. "Our aircraft are used by anyone who has a genuine reason to use them," says Carrier. "They are never used for frivolous purposes."

Gainey's use of business aircraft appears to be typical of the industry in general. But this has to be borne out by statistics and unsolicited testimonials rather than by public acknowledgment from users. A web of secrecy surrounds the industry, and few top executives are willing to voice their support publicly. When approached to discuss the nature of their flight operations, nearly all companies or individuals concerned put up a wall of silence. "It is company policy not to discuss the role of our flight department," is a common answer.

Those who have spoken out are in no doubt about the positive part that business aircraft play for them: J C Bamford, the UK's largest manufacturer of earth-moving equipment, owns a Dassault Falcon 2000 which is used to visit, or bring potential customers to, its factory in the East Midlands. "In 1997, 76% of our business was in exports, with a large percentage of this coming from Europe," says the company. "The ability to use a company aircraft is therefore a very positive business tool."

Fordair, Ford Motor's European corporate flight department, operates three aircraft from its London Stansted Airport base. The fleet, which consists of two 115-seat Boeing MD-87s and one Hawker, is used mainly to transport company employees around its five European factories and for product launches. It is widely regarded as the largest operation of its kind in the world. In 1997, Fordair transported about 110,000 employees and is expected to exceed that figure this year.

"The aircraft are mainly used to transport engineers and middle management," says Fordair chief pilot Robert Gardner. "Without them, we would not be a dominant force in Europe and we would have to see major changes to the company."

Some 12,000 companies worldwide use business aircraft, yet only a fraction of these openly declare their involvement. "It's not something you shout about if you are the chief executive of a large company - they are so frightened of what the shareholders might think," says one former chief pilot. "Many of them charter business aircraft to the hilt and not one says 'boo', but if an aircraft appears on a balance sheet, someone will start shooting at him."

The NBAA set up its "No Plane, No Gain" campaign in the USA in 1993 to spread the positive image of business aviation. "We analysed what we felt to be the most significant negative in the growth of this form of transportation, and we came to the conclusion that it was image," says NBAA president Jack Olcott. "Companies and the media had the wrong impression about a business aircraft."

The Association feels that the advocacy campaign should talk about the way in which business aircraft are really used. "We try to emphasise that the companies that use the business tool effectively are productivity leaders and they are trying to do very well by their shareholders," adds Olcott. "Look at the Fortune 500 companies. Of those that have consistently returned the highest profits to shareholders, 90% are operators of business aircraft. What this says is that business aircraft are a sign of a well managed company."

The NBAA has been representing the interests of the business aviation community for more than 51 years, and is keen to promote the concept as an ordinary travel option that provides a rapid and efficient mode of transport to most parts of the world. "People look at the tip of the iceberg," says Olcott. "A famous celebrity flies around in a great big aeroplane and is served caviar - but that is not the mainstream of business aviation."

According to the NBAA, the most popular turbine powered general aviation aircraft is the light helicopter, with more than 50,000 registered in the USA. Within the fixed wing aircraft market, turboprops represent 50% and jets the remainder. Within this second category, the most popular are the small jets, which typically seat a practical maximum of seven passengers. "Despite what you may have seen on television, they are simply too small for people to stand erect or walk around," says the Association. "The heavy jets represent only around 7.5% of the turbine fleet market."

Crusaders needed

Although the industry has been relatively successful in recruiting high profile crusaders, Olcott admits that more needs to be done to tempt the vast majority to come forward. "Even in the USA, companies will say '-yes we use these aircraft, but we would rather you didn't use our name'," he says.

In Europe, where more than 860 aircraft are registered to resident companies, the image issue is proving to be even harder to tackle. "Business aviation is the embodiment of the American entrepreneurial spirit, so it's not unusual that it is so popular in the USA," says Olcott. "It could be very, very popular in Europe with a change of attitude."

Brian Humphries, managing director of Anglo-Dutch Shell Aircraft and chairman of the European Business Aviation Association (EBAA), believes the business aviation community in Europe has suffered because of its tainted image. "We have to get the message through [to officials and politicians] that business aviation is a valuable business tool and an important segment of the European air transportation system," he says.

The industry is fighting for equal access to airports, and for sustained use of reliever airports. In March, the EBAA formed a pressure group, called the Business Aviation Fighting Force, with three leading general aviation associations - the General Aviation Manufacturers and Traders Association, Heathrow Executive Jet Operators Association and the UK Business Aircraft Users Association (BAUA) - to create a unified voice and raise the community's profile.

The BAUA, which represents 42 members, believes that the Government and regulatory authorities must be better informed about the value of this industry to the economy. "Our 42 members generated around £20 billion [$30 billion]-worth of revenue for the UK economy alone," says chief executive Derek Leggett. The Association feels that it is time for industry leaders to put their heads above the parapet.

"During the mid-1990s," says one industry source, "five senior company executives sat round a table with the former Secretary of State for Transport and his officials, spelling out how valuable [business aviation] is." The meeting was a clandestine one at the behest of the individuals involved.

Another prominent industrialist admits approaching the last Government on this issue, but will not agree to publish details of the meetings. "What it boils down to is how much bottle the chief executive has - at the end of the day, he has to ask himself '-is this the hill that I really want to die on?", says one company executive.

One company, which does not want to be identified, says the reluctance to speak out is for security reasons. "A number of companies will not admit to owning or even hiring aircraft because the nature of their business could be highly sensitive and require maximum security," it says. Another company says: "We know that business aircraft work for our company - but what do we have to gain from speaking out?"

The NBAA's Olcott believes the popular press is keen to find something to complain about. He cites a recent case of a US company which is "-involved with hospital products" and employs 75% of the residents of a small town in the south-east corner of Indiana. The Wall Street Journal wrote a front page article covering the day-to-day operations of the company, concentrating in particular on its six Citations. It concluded its piece with the punch line: "No wonder the cost of hospital supplies is so high." Olcott responds: "These people are always trying to find a hole in the doughnut."


Recession watershed

Olcott believes the recession in the USA and Europe of the early 1990s was a watershed for the industry. Between 1987 and 1991, there was a decline in the number of flight departments in the USA, with many companies considering them an embarrassment when so many employees were being shed. Since the end of 1991, the emphasis has been placed on productivity.

"Companies had fewer people to sell products and research programmes, so they had to transport their people more effectively and efficiently," says Olcott. "As a result, business aviation started to grow." Shell Aircraft's Humphries agrees. "Our aircraft [one Gulfstream IV, one Dassault Falcon 50 and one Hawker 1000] are subjected to the same scrutiny as any other business tool and we review their performance every two years," he says.

Leggett says all of BAUA's members use their aircraft for business purposes. "These companies are very parsimonious about how they spend their money - you cannot justify that sort of expenditure for any frivolous means," he points out.

Industry observers believe that the image issue is alive and well and that it will take a long time to change existing perceptions. "Who would have thought, 20 years ago, that there would be a personal computer on everyone's desk?" says Olcott. "They were regarded as excessive and unessential. Now they are vital for higher productivity."

The representative bodies believe that, to enhance the industry's image, business aircraft have to be well managed and not abused, adding that the role of the industry is to dispel the myth associated with this type of aircraft.

In Europe, aviation associations will continue to lobby government officials to recognise the importance of corporate aircraft and will continue to call on high profile users to rally to the cause.

In the USA, the NBAA is confident that the message is finally getting through and is involved in several areas to try to enhance the image of business aviation. The internationally renowned National Air and Space Museum in Washington will shortly display a year-long exhibition on business aviation, which will be viewed by around 10 million visitors, according to the organisation. "It is not easy to change perceptions. We believe, however, that our story is very compelling," says Olcott.

Source: Flight International