"What we've got here...is failure to communicate."
These two quotes came to mind after hearing of the latest political dust up involving a company using federal money to survive and its embrace of business aviation. This case involved Citigroup and it's imminent acceptance of a shiny new $50 million Dassault Falcon 7x, one of a new generation of large-cabin jets offering extraordinary efficiency -- fuel wise and otherwise.
The Obama administration essentially shamed Citigroup into canceling the order, though the company plans to go forward with its intent to sell three of its five existing jets, according to press reports. And the company will eventually get back its $5 million deposit -- when someone else buys that airplane.
But once again, business aviation -- and by default -- all of general aviation is getting an unwarranted black eye.
Although my friend Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association, wrote a letter to President Obama righteously objecting to the tone and tenor of Washington demonizing and denigrating business aviation, part of the problem is long term and ongoing.
Our failure to communicate.
Citigroup, like the Big Three Detroit automakers before it, missed an opportunity to at least speak up in its own defense and detail the economic benefits of its ownership and use of private aircraft.
Yes, that communicating is also the job of Ed and the association he heads -- but such statements of fact should not have to wait on NBA, nor any other association. If a company does its work and finds economic benefit in owning an airplane -- from a Cessna piston single to a Citation Columbus, a Mooney to a Falcon, a Bonanza to a Hawker 4000 -- it should be adamant in its assertion of those facts. And an actual assertion, not a tepid defense. In general, business airplanes help their companies be profitable and aren't "perks" like some politicians want us to believe; and companies that operate aircraft tend to be more productive and profitable than companies in the same field who do not embrace private aviation.
Yesterday is was a pleasure to hear the first public speech by Craig Fuller, the fledgling president of the almost-70-year-old Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Speaking to the Wichita Aero Club, Craig said something apropos to this discussion: "Experience taught me long ago that if you do not define yourself, you are defined by your adversaries." He brings an accurate perspective borne of his 28-year history of working in Washington's political arena.
That's part of our problem with Washington these days; we're letting the politicians define us. Of course, it might not have hurt had Citigroup decided to rethink it's plans -- or at least have a plan for selling its logic, just after it accepted billions in funds from the Troubled Asset Recovery Program. By doing so, Citigroup admitted it's a troubled company; it should have known, thanks to the Detroit Debacle of a few weeks ago, that a new jet would just look wrong.
Which points up the need to be smart and ready to argue your fact.
This job of defining aviation realistically so that others can't demonize is is not something limited to the halls of associations; just because we pay dues to AOPA or NBAA or EAA or any other alphabet group doesn't let us off the hook.
Here's what Craig said during his talk: "All of us in aviation have a role to play. We must be engaged in the political process. We must define ourselves so our adversaries don't. We cannot afford to be passive and wait for better days."
Twenty-five years ago, I made a similar statement to a group of communicators representing members companies of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. They had just been told by a senior aviation reporter for a weekly news magazine that the current cycle of opposition to general aviation would eventually abate and things would be fine again.
My message went over like a leasure suit at a debutante's ball: "Whatever we lose in this cycle won't come back unless we fight to keep from losing what they want to take away."
Interestingly, Craig noted that in an election-night poll of people who voted, 62 percent viewed general aviation as important to the nation and its economy and health.
So we have most of the public already on our side.
Don't ever be a failure to communicate what makes general aviation worthwhile to the nation, our economy and our safety. We're far too important. But it wouldn't hurt of some businesses acted more wisely when under the microscope.
An opportunity to be smart is coming this weekend, when the Super Bowl gets played in Tampa. I'm not holding my breath that all companies will be smart. And I know that many of the jets that fly to the area will be owned by individuals -- individuals who should also be willing to speak up about the jobs they support through owning a private aircraft.
We all must define general aviation lest people with points to score define us in ways that portray us inaccurately.
Some we just won't be able to reach. But most we can. And we must reach as many as we can -- including that part of the public who work as politicians.