On July 9, 2007 then-Sen. Barack Obama stepped off a Gulfstream jet onto the runway tarmac to kick off the Alabama portion of his presidential election campaign with a luncheon fundraiser in Huntsville before continuing on to Birmingham. But he did not land at the Huntsville International Airport. He selected the much smaller Madison County Executive Airport in Meridianville, a general aviation airport with no regularly scheduled commercial flights.
Why Meridianville? In one word: time.
Flying privately owned aircraft in and out of general aviation airports can be a big time saver, offering flexible scheduling, no long lines at check-in and security and a short drive to a nearby town. Savvy businessmen have long recognized the advantages of private air travel and have found many ways to use corporate aircraft to improve their efficiency.
The corporate jet has gotten a bad reputation in recent years as a frivolous luxury, a stigma that Art Morris, president of the Aviation Council of Alabama, says is undeserved. “When the Big Three automobile manufacturers were in trouble, everyone criticized them because they flew to Washington on corporate jets, ” he recalls. “That was a silly argument. When you actually analyze what those executives’ time was worth to their companies and how much more time it would have taken if they had flown commercial, you find that the corporate aircraft were actually cheaper and made more sense.”
Flying corporate aircraft to general aviation airports can be a particular time saver when a business needs to visit smaller towns not part of a commercial airport hub.
“We have dozens of smaller corporate-sized airports around the state, ” says Harold Coghlan, CEO of Magic Express Airlines Inc. of Birmingham. “This has been an economic motivator for businesses like Mercedes-Benz and Honda. Being able to fly directly to a plant site is a real advantage when it comes to attracting business. If you have to make an airline connection to a city further off, pick up a rental car, drive a couple of hours more—that doesn’t make a good impression.”
John Eagerton, chief of the Alabama Department of Transportation Aeronautics Bureau, agrees on the importance of convenient air travel for attracting industry to a city. “Having a good general aviation airport in your community may not get you on the short list of potential sites that a company is looking at, ” he says. “But not having one can take you off that short list.”
Flying corporate aircraft can allow a company to accomplish as much in one day as it could in several days flying commercial. Coghlan recalls instances when he piloted the chairman of a Birmingham company on an inspection tour of sites in four states, all in one day. “He would normally take himself and four or five senior marketing executives, ” Coghlan recalls. “We might leave in the morning, go to West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina and be back to Birmingham that evening.”
This itinerary made for a rather long day, but the businessmen preferred it to spending a week to make the tour by commercial flights.
For companies that cannot justify the expense of owning a corporate aircraft, fractional ownership is an alternative.
“With the downturn in the economy, we did see some companies either park their aircraft or shed them, ” Eagerton says. “But we are beginning to see those companies shifting to a fractional ownership arrangement, where they don’t own the aircraft but buy a timeshare in it. All they have to do is give 24 hours’ notice that they need the aircraft and those fractional ownership companies will have an aircraft at their doorstep.”
Charter services also can respond quickly to requests for transportation. John Mitchell, co-owner of Toyota of Dothan, uses charter flights to attend meetings and auto auctions. “Nashville and particularly Orlando are locations we fly to, ” he says. “Typically on a Saturday evening we’ll make a decision to attend an auction, fly down on Tuesday morning and come back that same afternoon.” Mitchell also has found the charter service convenient for emergency transportation, recalling the time the first leg of his commercial flight was cancelled. “We get to the airport at 4 in the morning, and there’s no plane there, ” he recalls. “I called the charter service and said I need to get to Atlanta. They got me there in time to catch my plane to Las Vegas.”
A range of aircraft is available for corporate travel, the size depending on the needs of the business. The Madison County Executive Airport is one of the most active in corporate travel, with about a hundred flights per month, and Ray Meyer, the airport manager, sees every variation. “We get large Fortune 500 companies with jets all the way down to little startup guys that fly themselves around in their own single-engine planes, ” he says.
Small companies fly themselves, too. Mark McCowan, co-owner of Middletown Composites out of Berea, Kentucky, likes to fly his own single-engine Cessna into MCEA, bringing not only his partner J.B. Hillard, but also an array of composite samples. “This saves time and cuts down on shipping costs, ” he said.
William Stevenson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Huntsville.
By William H. Stevenson III