Memo to Congress: Buy More Jets

As a chastened House drops plans to order $550 million worth of private jets, Duff McDonald argues that shiny new planes are the only way America should be ferrying its leaders.

08.11.09 12:56 PM ET

The latest manufactured Washington scandal— Stop the presses! Congress is planning to upgrade the plane fleet owned by the U.S. government with eight new ones!—resulted last night in the House of Representatives turning tail, and cancelling its planned $550 million purchase on eight new private jets. (A $220 million order, originally proposed y the Department of Defense, will apparently still go through.)

Yes, a half-billion is a lot of money, especially on the kind of thing that sounds more 2007 than 2009. But we’re talking about planes here, folks, not Tonka Toys. Those jets are meant to replace an older fleet of seven aircraft, meaning that the federal government would make a net addition of a single plane. (Believe it or not, planes do need to be replaced every now and then.)

Do I really need to lay out the absolutely acceptable reasons that one might choose to fly our nation’s leaders around the globe by jet as opposed to in the back of a Continental 767?

Put a call into the House Appropriations Committee, as I did, and it’s hard to get anyone to talk on the record about the issue, it’s so hot to handle. When The Wall Street Journal called the Department of Defense about the planes, the Pentagon’s press secretary tried dodging blame by pointing out that they had only asked for four of the eight. The other ones, he couldn’t be held responsible for.

But that’s all missing the point. I managed to extract from Congressional bean counters that when the planes are in use, they’ll be shared by Congress (14 percent of use), the military (44 percent), and the Administration (42 percent), each of which has perfectly acceptable reasons for choosing private air travel over commercial. A very senior former government official assured me that these planes get a lot of use.

Think the government should save some money by just chartering planes when it needs them, or at least charter out its fleet—as even many billionaires do to count pennies—when they’re not needed for official business? Think again. “It would be a huge security risk,” says Ryan Dos Ramos, vice president of business development at Pacific Coast Jet. “Not to mention a logistical nightmare. In the private sector, management companies do all the charter work. But the Air Force is responsible for all aspects of government planes. Do we really think the Air Force should get into the chartering business?”

Not to mention the fact that these eight planes are just a sliver of the government’s overall fleet, which includes everything from cargo aircraft to surveillance planes and fighter jets. And it’s not like they’re just buying planes willy-nilly. When Congress canceled an order for seven F-22 planes in July, it saved the $1.75 billion in the process.

Nevertheless, a flurry of commentary has clogged up the blogosphere in a near-frenzy of chastisement aimed at Congress for its hypocrisy in buying planes just months after pillorying corporate executives for their own use of jets.

Remember that? When auto industry executives were nearly tarred and feathered for having the audacity for taking jets from Washington to Detroit? And how the next time they went, they all drove? That showed them! One Congressman asked why they didn’t at least share a single jet and save the cost of two flights. Right. Next thing you know, there’d be an eruption of accusations of antitrust and collusion.

Sure, it’s more of stretch to justify corporate jet travel than, say, using a plane to fly the Secretary of State to Africa, but do I really need to lay out the absolutely acceptable reasons that one might choose to fly corporate leaders—or our nation’s leaders—around the globe by jet as opposed to in the back of a Continental 767?

Time is money. Just ask those evil bankers. In March, JPMorgan Chase was taken to the woodshed for planning to buy two new $59.5 million Gulfstream jets to replace older ones it owned. (Run a Nexis search for “private jet” and JPMorgan and you get 994 stories. Isn’t there something more important to be writing about?) This is a company with 225,000 employees spread across the globe. One would think it would serve the greater good by having executive talent be able to travel efficiently instead of sitting around while their flight gets delayed again due to one of those totally aggravating “waiting on some paperwork” issues that airlines have begun using of late. I’ve got a book coming out in October on JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon called Last Man Standing. The man is a workhorse, doing things like visiting eight cities in a single day that would be impossible if he flew commercial.

When a commercial flight from New York to Toronto, for example, complete with its 50 minutes of actual airtime, takes about six hours door-to-door, we really have to wonder about what value we would have achieved by shaming each and every corporate executive to suffer the same time-consuming tribulations of commercial travel as the rest of us. It seems to me, too, that the whole outrage over private jet travel is rooted as much in envy as it is some true sense of righteous indignation. Who wouldn’t want to be able to drive right up to the plane and be in the air ten minutes later? I sure as hell would.

But the elite-bashers need something to talk about something, though, don’t they? Some enterprising reporter will ambush Dimon watching a conveyor belt going round and round in LaGuardia’s dingy baggage claim area, and the next day, we’d be greeted with a story (and the torrent of blog posts it would unleash) about how the big bank was paying its top executive for a half day he spent traveling and not working.

And when former president Bill Clinton flew to North Korea last week, it was pointed out that he flew not on a government plane, but on one owned by his old pal Steve Bing. Jon Stewart mocked the Administration for not having a plane at Clinton’s disposal. Apparently, you can’t win on this issue.

Duff McDonald is a contributing editor at New York magazine and a former contributing editor at Condé Nast Portfolio. He is working on a book about Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, to be published by Simon & Schuster in the fall of 2009.