01.29.09

The Grounding of CEOs

Private planes are becoming a thing of past. Have the titans of Wall Street thought about taking the train?

The purge of private jets reported in today’s New York Times heralds the demise of the single perk whose absence CEOs will experience as genuine psychic anguish. Many of the losses Wall Street big shots have experienced so far in the accelerating meltdown have been theoretical. It was only numbers on a sheet, pixels on a screen. If you still have your Park Avenue apartment and your spread in Bedford and your vacation home in Turks and Caicos—well, how bad could it really be?

But getting to those out-of-town homes without any brush with the rest of the downwardly mobile, three-hours-delayed, screaming-baby-bedeviled human race could be seriously, game-changingly, traumatic. When I think of members of the Wheels Up Brigade in my own acquaintance hearing this news, all I can say is: I Feel Your Plane.

That cozy private jet is like a crack pipe with wings. It takes you higher.

The trouble is, once a CEO flies private, he  (usually, let's face it, he) gets hooked. That cozy jet is like a crack pipe with wings. It takes them higher. And it’s not just the status, though God knows they relish that. It’s the secretive comfort. It’s the fact that he can sit there wearing his pajamas and order a peanut-butter sandwich from a genial attendant who has been pre-notified that he prefers whole-wheat toast with the crusts cut off. It’s the big fluffy duvet that appears instead of that scratchy, meager airline blanket. It's the fact that there is no such thing as a departure time. The plane will always wait.

A lawyer who has worked on many major corporate mergers once told me that the business details of fusing the new merged entities usually sail through without much dispute. Most of the time and agony, he said, was  spent haggling over what in corporate parlance are delicately called “the social issues.” No, not abortion and gay marriage. Yes, the big boys’ titles and their access to the company’s private plane(s). Sandy Weill, who retired as CEO of Citigroup in 2003, managed to keep his use of the plane for six years alongside his $3 million-a-year retirement package—and even then he agreed only to “limit his use and to give up access after ten years.”

The CEOs of today’s Tarnished Age should cop a clue from their Gilded Age counterparts of a century ago, who traveled by private railway car. Or they should consider the example of the House of Windsor and trade in their fleets of jets for the corporate equivalent of the Royal Train. The Queen’s favored means of transport has up to eight carriages that can be individually joined up depending how many are traveling. The Queen’s carriage has its own plushly appointed bedroom, bathroom, and sitting room. The Duke of Edinburgh’s features Scottish landscape paintings and Victorian prints of other railway journeys.

One of the advantages of the Royal Train is the way it can pause in the sidings of small country villages, allowing private visitors to get on unseen by anyone except the Royal protection officer, who is the only other person allowed in the same carriage. Prince Charles used to find these pit stops particularly handy in the days when he was surreptitiously seeing Mrs. Camilla Parker Bowles. Corporate bigwigs might likewise find this a convenient means of meeting politicians for discussions of matters of mutual interest.

The Obamas and the Bidens, you may recall, journeyed to their inauguration last week on a well-appointed private railway car. Compared to fuel-guzzling Air Force One—or even to an ordinary commercial jet flight—it’s a wonderfully green way to travel.  (That’s the excuse Prince Charles uses anyway.) If it’s good enough for the crowned heads of Europe, to say nothing of the president of the United States and the fabled robber barons of yesteryear, it ought to be good enough for the knuckleheads of Wall Street.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times bestseller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.