Our man in the stratosphere: a jet-age report

A flight to nowhere offers a window on the high-flying world of corporate charters.

As the jet taxis down the runway, passengers idly watch airport hangers roll by from the comfy couches (yes, couches) they're draped across. Refreshing drinks share mahogany tables with weighted vases of cut flowers.

Sure, there's still a flight attendant up front, acting out the safety procedures. But for once I'm not having to worry about whether I've been seated next to a proselytizing salesman.

And there's not one screaming baby within earshot.

Welcome to jet travel, corporate-style. Full disclosure: This is a sample flight to nowhere aboard a Gulfstream IV, offered to journalists by FlightTime.com, an air-charter company in Teterboro, N.J.

I'm not just here for the complimentary truffles. The trip's meant to offer a look at a rising alternative to airline travel. More businesses are turning to business jets to avoid all-too-prevalent flight delays, the hassles of major airports, and inconvenient schedules.

"Business aviation really took off in the '90s," says David Almy, a spokesman for the Washington-based National Business Aviation Association (NBAA). He notes 11,000 companies own some 17,000 aircraft among them.

"If you get over, say, 250 hours a year, the economics work out that it may make more sense to operate your own aircraft," Mr. Almy says.

A more recent trend has been a proliferation of both charter aircraft (including companies like Skyjet.com and eBizjets.com) and "timeshare" ownership of jets, run by companies such as Warren Buffett's Netjets. (See chart, below.)

The growth of charter planes "is not only the wave of the future, it's already happening," says Marianne McInerney of the National Business Travel Association (NBTA) based in Alexandria, Va. In its semiannual survey of 450 of its 1,400 member companies, the NBTA found 82 percent of them were using some form of charter travel in their travel programs. That's a rise of 46 percent since 1996.

"When a company moves to a charter, your employees will be able to get to several points in one day, have successful meetings, and probably get home for their son's or daughter's PTA meeting," says Ms. McInerney, adding that companies utilize charters because they are mindful that "traveling does wear on your employees."

In an era of globalization, business aviation isn't limited to the 3,500 airports within the US. FlightTime.com notes it started up a charter flight in March, filled with 56 "first-class" seats, that flies from Procter & Gamble's Cincinnati headquarters to the firm's Brussels office four times a week.

Prior to that, "they were sending their executives over [on commercial flights], some in coach, some in business class, and some in first class, depending on their levels. We've developed a consistent product for them," says Lisa Pisaturo, FlightTime.com's vice president of marketing. "It's [Procter & Gamble's] own virtual private airline, basically.... They actually were involved in the tastings of the menus - the pillows and amenities ... on the aircraft."

Private business travel is no longer just the domain of CEOs. According to a 1997 survey by the NBAA, only 15 percent of private business flights were for senior executives. Over half of the flights were for middle managers, sales teams, engineers, and negotiators.

For many businesses, corporate aviation is not only fundamental good management, but also an employee perk.

"In a tight labor market in a booming economy [using private business aviation] generally does get to the issue of attracting and retaining key people," says Almy.

It's hard not to see the allure of this kind of flying. With its wood paneling, our aircraft has the interior feel of a luxury yacht. But as with its nautical equivalent, there isn't much room at times. The tiny bathroom, walled by a curved bulkhead, seems designed for Victor Hugo's Quasimodo.

On the main flight deck too, the air hostess has to constantly excuse herself as she sashays through an interlocked zigzag of knees in the aisle between couches. The constant shifting would be a tad wearisome, were it not for the chocolate-dipped strawberries she offers with a smile, adding, "I have cheesecake if you're interested."

Decisions, decisions, decisions!

Flying in the lap of luxury clearly can include luxury in your lap, if the firm hiring the plane so desires. In between these lavish snacks, travelers are able to work on laptops, send faxes, and hold meetings, all in the privacy of their own aircraft cabin.

But when the jet is skimming along at 2,500 feet above the seemingly bonsai-size trees in New York's Central Park, it's hard to believe any businessman - save for a jaded senior executive - could do anything but sit back and marvel.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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