Your Outrage Over Business Jets Is Silly
Brace yourself for a little thing called "nuance."
Business jets are in the news again. That’s never a good thing. Whenever business jets crop up in our collective consciousness, it’s because one of them has crashed or because executives or government officials are using them unwisely, and people noticed. The most notorious example of this was when automotive executives from Ford, Chrysler, and GM all flew to Washington, D.C., during the financial crisis of 2008 to ask Congress for taxpayer bailout cash. Bad optics, for sure.
Business jet usage cropped up again this year when it became known that former Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, Interior secretary Ryan Zinke, Veterans Affairs secretary David Shulkin, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin all used business aircraft at one time or another in their official travels—with Mnuchin’s case being particularly egregious, given wife Louise Linton’s fondness for bragging about it on Instagram.
Now business jets are in the crosshairs of public outrage yet again, thanks to a provision in the current tax bill that appears to give their owners and operates a tax break the size of Donald Trump's growing waistline. Without actually noting the specifics, news outlets and social media alarmists are using the business jet provision as another example of egregious handouts being afforded to corporations and the super-wealthy.
Don’t get us wrong—there’s plenty to be extremely ticked off about in both the tax bill and, more broadly, the administration’s obvious favoritism toward all things corporate. It just that picking on business jets yet again represents a bit of misplaced rage against a mode of transport that’s largely misunderstood. It was back in 2008, and it is now.
First, the tax bill, as passed by the Senate Finance Committee: The truth is that the provision simply clarifies and existing law about how commercial and non-commercial general-aviation flights are taxed. The proposal simply clarifies an IRS memo from 2012 that erroneously held aircraft management companies responsible for commercial taxes on non-commercial flights, shouldering those companies with onerous and excessive tax bills. The new bill reaffirms that aircraft owners are subject to fuel taxes of 20 cents per gallon—not a small amount, given that business jets can burn between 75 and 600 gallons per hour—as they always have been, not the 7.5 percent excise tax that airline passengers pay for their seats. So there’s not actually a new tax break for business aviation anywhere in the bill.
Second, there are the broader misconceptions about business aviation. I’ve covered the subject for 15 years, and flown in private jets enough to appreciate the overall benefits as more than the cushy thrill of flying a limo in the sky. One thing that’s been made apparent over and over is that companies see business jets as tools, not perks. They (usually) aren’t used by CEOs as party wagons, vacation taxis, or badges of corporate elitism—though each of those things invariably does crop up from time to time.
Rather, business jets are mostly used by rank-and-file personnel on corporate missions, whether its sales teams visiting three cities in one day rather than three days, as they’d have to when flying commercial, or it's engineers sent out to troubleshoot equipment failures in time-sensitive projects, or, yes, executives flying to negotiate high-level deals. In each of those cases, flying private often makes the most sense when it comes to speed of travel—including airport loiter time and connections—and comfort for people who are hopping time zones and zig-zagging around the country to do their jobs.
Ultimately, business jets have to make economic sense for the companies that use them, and they have to be deployed smartly and efficiently for those benefits to emerge. Given the persistently anti-bizjet climate in our culture, the corporate boards that approve their use really wouldn’t tolerate anything less. Indeed, the vast majority of business jets are used with max efficiency in mind, as evidenced by the recent surge in charter and fractional ownership systems that allow companies to use private aviation without necessarily purchasing their own aircraft. They can take a small jet when they just need to fly three people 500 miles and back in one morning or a larger one when a team of personnel need to fly to China to oversee a product. Furthermore, business jets can fly into and out of the thousands of underused regional and local airports around the country and world, eliminating the need to land in a hub airport far from your ultimate destination, rent a car, and drive the final hour or two.
The smartest companies these days use private aviation in concert with commercial, deploying each when and where it makes the most sense. One guy flying from New York to LA? Business class all the way. Three employees going from Duluth to Cheyenne? Charter a Citation!
Yes, the benefits are often intangible, and the costs often high. It is indeed more expensive to fly people via private aviation versus commercial, but they quality-of-life benefits and the time-savings make it worth it. Anyone who’s flown economy on business travel can attest to how miserable and inefficient it can be, yet for some reason business aviation has become this toxic enterprise, a frivolous nonessential perk for the corporate elite. By that logic, though, you can make the same argument about business class tickets, Town Car service across town, or, hell, nice corner offices. You could even argue—as many do—that all of humanity should take buses everywhere rather than own personal cars, which would be the equivalent of our current air travel system.
But like personal cars, private jets have a place and they have a benefit, one that’s thoroughly hamstrung by negative public opinion. Sure, there’s a lot to be unhappy about in the business environment these days, from salary insanity to corporate malfeasance to the real no-good tax breaks. But lumping business jets in with all that nastiness doesn’t make sense. Just because an accepted standard is miserable and inefficient doesn’t mean a smarter, faster alternative has to be deplorable.