On 19 November 2008, just days after the US Presidential election, auto executives from Chrysler, Ford and General Motors flew to Washington DC aboard their company business aircraft to ask a lame-duck session of Congress for $25 billion in bailout funding to stave off a complete collapse US car industry.

Members of Congress, seizing on a popular anger born out of the nearly $200 billion allocated as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, took fierce aim at the mode of transport chosen by the executives that day, and set about hastening an already sharp downturn in the business jet market brought on by the start of a steep recession of the global economy.

None of the aircraft that the executives flew on that day were manufactured in Wichita, the world's largest exporter of business and general aviation aircraft, but it did not matter, the damage had been done.

The global world of business aircraft production saw an immediate sharp decline with significant cancellations, particularly at the smaller end of the market dominated by Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft and Bombardier's Learjet line.

"There's so much out there that people can latch on to and when it first came out and they called the auto maker [to Washington DC], and [Congress] said 'oh my goodness, they showed up in corporate jets' - that's their normal mode of travel," says Bob Brewer, Society of Progressional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, which represents engineers at Spirit AeroSystems.

"I don't think it was meant to be a slam on the general aviation or business jet industry. I'm not sure I've ever seen anything blown up so quick that impacted businesses so quick as that did. What if it had been luxury cars? Would they have attacked that from a luxury car standpoint?"

Cessna in response launched its Rise campaign to "fight back", targeting existing customers deterred from using their aircraft, citing a concern about the perception created by using business aircraft in the face of the economic downturn.

The message on Cessna's Rise website reads: "Shame on those who suggest that business aviation is little more than a corporate frivolity. Focusing on facts over hyperbole, it's glaringly apparent why you fly."

The National Business Aviation Association launched its own public awareness campaign to combat the perception that had been cultivated by public officials, commercial airlines and the media.

The industry as a whole was forced, awkwardly at first, to justify its existence in a climate that was openly disdainful of its operations.

"We were caught flat footed," says Joe Lombardo, executive vice-president, General Dynamics Aerospace, whose company owns Savannah, Georgia-based Gulfstream.

"There's no doubt about it, no excuse for it. We found out we didn't have the right level of data to go out and talk to people in the local community, we didn't have the right level of understanding of the significance of aviation. We had anecdotal information, but it wasn't co-ordinated," says Lombardo.

As the information campaigns have taken hold among elected officials, "the bad rap has died down substantially," says Lombardo.

Source: Flight International