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"Corporate Jets For the Rest of Us"



Tuesday, Jun. 26, 2001

Corporate Jets For the Rest of Us
It's not just for CEO's anymore. Faced with the delays of flying commercial,
many companies are turning to their own private shuttles
Time Magazine


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.

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