On the U.S. campaign jet trail

July 11, 2011

Private jet travel, it seems, is an essential tool of coast-to-coast (and everywhere-in-between) presidential campaign success. Here’s why:

The trail is heating up. Campaigners’ arduous journeys from candidate to party nominee to U.S. President – via state primaries, caucuses and party conventions (a process now understood by Britons, thanks to The West Wing) – swung into motion this spring and will continue until November 2012.

The lengthy campaign season is going to be aggressive, intense, exhausting, and though best-in-show logistics won’t necessarily determine the eventual winner, a cunning exploitation of aviation links will certainly help.

Whatever their political colour, declared candidates will be in need of an on-demand craft to negotiate their whirligig, multiple-cities-a-day schedules. Though campaign budgets might benefit from flying commercial, it would be nigh-on impossible to fit in a tenth of their meet-and-greet functions if reliant on scheduled flights.

To better understand why, I talked to two private jet execs.

Woody Harford, SVP of Cessna-owned private jet company CitationAir told me that the “folks campaigning for a national position in the US government or within a large state such as Texas, New York, California or Florida… rely on the benefits of private aviation.

“Every night we create a new schedule. A commercial airline publishes their schedules quarterly, or in the case of British Airways, every six months. It’s a real labour of love daily.”

But budget constraints may mean that campaigners think twice about spending all their airtime flying private. According to Phil Matthews, president of charter broker Air Partner, “In the early days [of a campaign], people will mix and match between private and commercial airlines. It depends on the intensity of the schedule, how many stops you want to get in to a single day.”

Travel makes up a significant chunk of a campaigner’s budget, though less than advertising. Industry insiders put private jet costs at between US$2 and US$3 million in the first phase; rising to between $15 million and $20 million between conventions and Election Day.

Like C-suite business customers, political clients require extreme flexibility; itineraries and passenger numbers are liable to change up to T-minus-several minutes.

Maintaining the schedule is the single most important thing for campaigners, thinks Matthews, whose firm keeps an office in D.C. staffed by four people with political backgrounds. “If you’ve got a press opportunity waiting, it’s hard to explain: ‘Sorry we’re still on the tarmac in Wisconsin; we’ll be there as soon as the aircraft is fixed’”.

The bottom line for Harford is that flying private allows political clients to work non-stop; “these guys are changing their plans, altering their speeches, and it allows them the privacy and the confidentiality to do that in ways that you’d never be able to do if you were flying commercially.”

As the political campaign deepens, campaigners’ carrier demands change. According to Air Partner’s Matthews, “What will start off as a relatively small amount of flying probably on a small-cabin private jet, will graduate up if [a candidate] were to become the nominee, to a commercial size aircraft, a 737 or a 757.”

Harford concurs. “At the beginning, when there are five or six people flying, our aircraft types work very well. We’ll sit down with them and try to identify exactly what their needs are, where do they need to be, what level of flexibility do they need with regard to where they’re going to.”

CitationAir’s planes are equipped with cellphone capabilities, and will be rolling out WiFi capability when the time and costs are right. “There’s a vocal minority who absolutely want it,” Harford says. “A silent majority are unsure. We’re moving ahead with it, it’s just how and when.”

As a broker, Air Partner kits out the appropriate aircraft to the specified configuration. Phil Matthews says this typically happens once you have a nominee, saying: “Once you’ve graduated up to a commercial size aircraft, with a press contingent, some other things such as internet access would come into play.” Another common request is to brand the outside of planes.

All private flyers make their fair share of demands. Harford, who spent 18 years at British Airways, says “You are talking about people who are at the highest level of business, finance, entertainment, and their success is borne out of their hard work and focus, and demanding nature.

“It makes good business sense; the people that are flying around in these aircraft are folks whose time is valuable… Sometimes it’s very easy to take pot shots at private aviation but the proof is in the pudding that politicians will avail themselves of it when they can.”

Main caption: Back in his Senator days, Barack Obama steps off his campaign plane carrying a Halloween pumpkin, at Chicago Midway Airport, October 31, 2008. REUTERS/Jason Reed

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