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Like a ball of orange twine being unwound at speeds faster than you can drive a Tesla through a test tunnel from the Boring Company, a top of the fold infographic charts each of the over 250 flights made by a Gulfstream G650ER owned by Elon Musk’s SpaceX last year. It was meant to be impactful visual support for an article in The Washington Post titled, “Elon Musk’s highflying 2018: What 150,000 miles in a private jet reveal about his ‘excruciating’ year.” Written by technology reporter Drew Harwell it covered little new ground about the controversial billionaire. Its approach missed the runway – badly, and the innuendos and assumptions about the use of private jets underscore why many users of business aviation are apprehensive to talk about it.
In 1,500 words the author offered few new views of Musk – currently the 24th wealthiest person on the planet as ranked by Forbes, except to show he may have a bit more life balance than one would expect. In writing about his taking multiple family vacations or jetting to Spain to attend his brother’s wedding, the message seemed to be that perhaps the billionaire is less workaholic than the image he cultivates of himself.
Other than that, it could have been an article about where my neighbor Marge drove her Honda Accord. And while where Marge goes may indeed be fascinating, the way she gets there probably isn’t relevant except it is the mode of transportation that works best for her and fits into her budget.
To really be direct, Harwell’s article reveals less whether or not Musk is the next Henry Ford, Steve Jobs or Jeff Skilling, and more the fact that he uses a private jet. “The billionaire executive’s frequent travel on a private plane was largely paid for by Tesla, the cash-burning automaker that faces billions of dollars in debt and has laid off thousands of employees within the last year, including slashing 7 percent of its workforce this month,” Harwell writes.
I’m OK with that critique. With a net worth of $21 billion, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to think Musk should have picked up the $700,000 charged to Tesla for his flights even if it was for business travel. At least he could have paid the difference to what commercial flights would have cost.
The Post was able to do its expose after obtaining flight data for Musk’s G650, and while it couldn’t confirm which ones he was aboard, via good reporting, Harwell was able to match his public appearances and even Tweets to the flight log.
Harwell was able to show after flying from work in California to his brother’s wedding in Spain, instead of hopping on his jet to head right back to work as was apparently inferred, Musk, in fact, traveled to Northern Ireland where he visited the “Game of Thrones” set with his kids. In the same paragraph, it was pointed out the trip came three weeks after announcing he would layoff about 3,500 workers.
Having written two books about Super Rich consumption, it’s always difficult to separate personal time from business when it comes to the Tai-Pan lifestyle. For the folks who occupy the corner office or top floor, even while jetting off to a vacation home, they are probably on conference calls from their planes or in some cases have deputies tagging along so they can have an in-flight meeting. When they land in Los Cabos, Palm Beach or Maui, the boss retreats to his mansion and the lieutenants shuffle to the other side of the airport to catch a commercial flight back to headquarters. At the same time, Marge’s employer probably wouldn’t allow her to bill mileage to the company while she is driving to pick up her kids from daycare, even if she was phoning clients on the way. Let’s just not blame Marge’s Accord if she did.
Harwell’s use of private jets is effective to track Musk’s global travels, however, it ends up being a crutch rather than a lens. First of all, quick math shows if you divided 150,000 miles by 250 flights, that’s an average of 600 miles per flight. One reason private jets are so popular with the super-rich and anyone who can afford them is they give them something they can’t buy, which is time.
This is particularly true for shorter hops. Many of the flights on Musk’s G650 were between the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles and a remote factory in Nevada. Whereas flight time for most of these legs would be approximately 45 minutes, flying privately enables Musk – or anyone – to save time by showing up a few minutes before departure. The ability to move your flight based on changing schedules, do work up in the air, and not need to spend 30 more minutes exiting airport terminals at the other end can add hours of productivity daily.
Private flying in the U.S. accesses over 5,000 airports compared to about 500 used by commercial airlines. A trip that door to door might take three, four or five hours using an airline would be less than 90 minutes if you fly privately. It’s a similar story when traveling between airports that don’t have nonstop flights and require connecting in a hub.
The article asserts there is an “awkward dynamic” that somebody who calls fossil fuels “the dumbest experiment in human history” would fly by a private jet. A Tesla spokesperson noted that teleporting is not yet available, and for Musk private jet travel enables him to do his job.
I recall a private jet flight coming back from a trade show in Las Vegas to New York several years ago. Weather on the East Coast created ground stops and cancellations that resulted in lots of delays, some more than 24 hours. When Teterboro, Newark, Kennedy and La Guardia all closed, we were able to land in White Plains and made it back into the city for a scheduled dinner. It’s an example of where the article misses the mark. For the folks like Musk – like it or not – a private jet is the same necessity as Marge having a car instead of walking or taking the bus.
Harwell mentions ferry flights, where Musk’s jet would fly empty from the airport where he was dropped off to the one that was closer to where he was going to be when he was ready for his next flight. Those flights are pretty much in line with the entire concept of private flying, which is to save time for the user. Driving a couple hours back to another airport in traffic would be sort of self-defeating one would think.
By using private jets as a metaphor for waste and double standards, Harwell does a huge disservice to business aviation. First of all, sustainable alternative fuels and other green initiatives are at the top of the industry’s agenda. Then there’s a small fact the business aviation accounts for over 1.1 million jobs in the U.S. alone and contributes $219 billion to the economy annually. What’s more, 80% of private flights are into airports in small towns and communities, places that would be hard to reach via the airlines, and often those trips are to support customers or offices in those remote locations. Top management is on business aircraft less than 50% of the time, according to research from No Plane No Gain.
Contrary to the insinuation private jets somehow represent shoddy management and waste, 95% of the companies on Fortune magazine’s list of best places to work use private aviation. S&P companies using business aviation outperform those that don’t by 70%.
There’s more. One area of private aviation that doesn’t get much media splash is its role supporting first responders. During natural disasters, private jets donated by their owners are on the front line of relief, bring in supplies and aid workers. Business aircraft make over 15,000 flights per year for humanitarian reasons. After disasters, hundreds if not thousands of lives are saved through the efforts of the business aviation community.
Perhaps most interesting in my opinion is that the writer’s missed approach begins with the headline. The noted 150,000 flight miles in a year equates to less than 3,000 miles per week, something that many mid-management road warriors, consultants and sales executives easily exceed albeit not on private jets. While I won’t wait for a behind-the-scenes look at what you can tell about somebody based on how many times they make connections in Atlanta, it’s unfortunate that in the case Harwell’s article, he only serves to propagate misleading stereotypes about business aviation. Already, numerous other outlets have picked up on the story.
January 30, 2019 at 11:32PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs