Plane Advantage: Crisis Control

A pandemic isn’t the only time it’s great to have a private plane at your disposal—but it certainly is one of them.

Arkin Group CEO Robert Arkin loading donations onto a plane he flew on a hurricane-relief mission to the Bahamas in 2019.

Victor International CEO David Johnson has experienced the crisis management virtues of private aviation firsthand. While he often spends a full day flying from his home office in suburban Detroit to his base in the British Virgin Islands on commercial airlines, his Dassault Falcon business jet became his only option for getting there after Hurricane Irma ravaged his company’s Oil Nut Bay resort in 2017.

In addition to denuding the landscape, wrecking utility infrastructure, leaving about 200 employees task-less and devastating the entire protectorate, the storm made commercial air service impossible for a while. But Johnson was able to turn his 10-seat jet and its two pilots into a hard-working ferry.

“We used it like a giant Suburban, jam-packing it with chain saws, generators, extension cords, water, food, air-mattress beds and medical supplies,” Johnson recalls. “We jammed it to the hull. And as we were meeting with local government and other businesses on recovery, we also used the Falcon to bring key personnel back and forth.”

The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the precious transportation capabilities that business aviation can provide during a crisis, easing times of individual suffering as well as helping to relieve community and societal stress. As Johnson’s experience three years ago demonstrated, corporate planes and their owners have been coming through repeatedly in dire times for decades, for nearly as long as CEOs have been airborne.

“Corporate aviation is among the first things to respond in a crisis,” says Sheryl Barden, president and CEO of Aviation Personnel International. “It’s faster than government and even faster than the Red Cross.”

Prepping for a Pandemic

Corporate-aviation activity skyrocketed in March as CEOs sought to squeeze in crucial last-minute actions and get key people where they needed to be in advance of governments’ social-distancing shutdowns.

“You can’t overstate the measure of security and surety of travel that it provided then,” says David Nolletti, a former commercial pilot and aviation executive who now is a director of Conway MacKenzie, a workout firm based in Birmingham, Michigan. “When you want to fly, you’re able to fly, going directly even to out-of-the-way places where many companies have operations.”

WeatherTech’s David MacNeil, who flies his own pair of jets and two helicopters, also pressed them into service. “During the coronavirus time, we were able to move personnel around the country in complete safety and security,” says the CEO and owner of the Bolingbrook, Illinois-based manufacturer of automotive accessories. “We didn’t have any worries about the person sitting next to you or how healthy or unhealthy they may not be. Having a corporate jet available in times of crisis is priceless.”

Certainly the 106 people brought back home from an ill-fated Caribbean cruise in March could agree. Someone on the ship had the coronavirus, so all passengers had to enter quarantine. Once the cruise line flew them all to Dallas Fort-Worth Airport, JetSuite, an on-demand charter service, brought 13 of its light jets to the tarmac, which then took off to 22 different destinations to get the passengers back home safely.

Charter to the Rescue

JetSuite President Stephanie Chung (front left) was part of a team that helped bring home cruise passengers stranded after a coronovirus quarantine.

“It would have been very difficult for any airline to do what we did,” says Stephanie Chung, president of Dallas-based JetSuite, who declines to identify the cruise line involved. “We did it very quickly and worked not only with the cruise line but with two different governments. And we could get those people home because we can fly into 5,000 North American airports, whereas an airline can only fly into about 500.”

There are countless similar examples. Some are widely known and celebrated, such as in May, 1997, when Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, quickly hopped onto her Gulfstream IV in San Diego and jetted to Grand Forks, North Dakota. That community and others on the Red River had just been devastated by record flooding, and the daughter of the Midwest wanted to donate $15 million to recovery efforts, translating to about $2,000 per needy family in the region.

Anonymously, Kroc got a van tour of the devastation with the mayor, but a reporter looked up the plane’s tail number and identified her. Local officials dubbed Kroc the “Angel of Grand Forks.” While she declined recognition or thanks, Kroc’s Gulfstream- enabled demonstration of generosity was a prominent anecdote in the Los Angeles Times obituary upon her death in 2003.

Many other company-plane owners have also taken it upon themselves to help out. Last fall, for instance, Robert Arkin, CEO of Arkin Group, a Miami Beach, Florida-based construction firm and a pilot, personally flew his six-seat Cherokee Six more than 54 flight hours back and forth to the Bahamas. His plane ferried more than 6,000 pounds of donations in total, dedicated to helping islanders deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian. Arkin also carried 41 volunteers and medical personnel, two Great Danes and two cats.

He also helped organize similar responses by other Florida-based plane owners over a month’s time. “It was such a massive thing that sometimes you felt your one little bit didn’t help—but it did,” says Arkin. “If you have the wherewithal, you do it.”

After the monumental 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Haiti in 2010, a group of volunteers organized by the National Business Aviation Association coordinated the use of 125 of their aircraft, making more than 700 flights with nearly 4,000 passengers and more than 1.4 million pounds of critical supplies. Tapping into the association’s formalized Humanitarian Emergency Response Operation in 2018 in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, owners dispatched business jets to the Houston area by the dozens to help out.

How corporate aviation has responded in such cases has helped to offset some of the vilification that the industry endured at the onset of the Great Recession, when some politicians tried to shame business jets as egregious luxuries. “We have had to fight back against the negative and underscore the quiet, unsung heroes who donate time, resources and expensive tools to rise to the occasion in the face of disaster,” says Janine Iannarelli, founder and president of Par Avion aircraft brokers. “That message never was put out there before.”

Ferrying Patients

Add to this how the business-aviation community has organized itself over the last few decades to respond continually to moments of need by individuals in crisis, especially life-threatening illness. Since 1981, for example, the Corporate Angel Network (CAN) has coordinated no-cost flights for cancer patients via donated idle hours on participating privately owned aircraft.

“The ease of pulling up to a hangar or a [fixed base of operations for business jets] for a cancer patient, and having a car service drop you off at the plane, is a whole different experience than flying commercially,” says Gina Russo, executive director of the not-for-profit based in White Plains, New York. “And that one hour they save may make the difference for someone getting to or from care.”

CAN members demonstrated their devotion by making their planes available during the coronavirus shock to serve patients unrelated to the pandemic, even though many U.S. companies had grounded their aircraft. In late March, the network flew a very sick three-year-old from Boston to Wichita, Kansas, for instance, and a 30-year-old with advanced melanoma from Connecticut to Houston “because he was potentially eligible for a clinical trial there and couldn’t wait any longer,” Russo says.

After a boomlet in corporate-jet travel in March as CEOs reacted to the exigencies of the coronavirus, business-aviation activity essentially idled along with commercial travel. But with the country poised to reopen, the industry will soon be airborne again—and its crisis-service component coupled with advantages underscored by the crisis will help ensure that it soars once more.