In this, the fourth year of America's quadrennial political season, it seems everything is fair game. What a candidate said, or not. The source and amount of income. Tax payments. Religious beliefs. Business record. Marital fidelity. Birth control. In today's paper there are commentaries on the fashion sense of the first lady, and the rigid coiffure favored by a challenger's spouse. Please.
The din is so constant it's become a kind of white noise. But I took notice the other day, when one side began kicking the Chevy Volt for political gain. Having witnessed the vilification of business aircraft for much the same reason — to win votes — I got angry.
For those unfamiliar with the Volt, it is an automobile propelled by a 111-kW (149 hp) Voltec electric drive unit, which is fed by a lithium-ion battery pack and, alternately, by a 1.4 liter gasoline engine. Its creation was made possible by the government's bailout of General Motors, which is where the politics come into play. (Yes, the same bailout that demanded closure of GM's flight department.) Since the controversy speaks not at all about the value or quality of the car itself — exactly as has been the case with business aircraft — I thought I'd find out for myself.
I called a friend in the car business, and presently I was tooling down Route 35 in a silver 2012 Volt. Having never seen even a photo of the car, I wasn't sure what to expect, and so was surprised to discover it was nicely styled, roomy, completely contemporary four-door sedan with all the modern trimmings — GPS nav, DVD player, XM radio, Bose speakers, OnStar, USB ports, Bluetooth phone, the works. The only hint that there's something special about it, is the second fueling door on the front left side. This is where you put the plug when charging the 435-lb. battery from a 110- or 220-volt circuit, which takes 8 or 4 hr., respectively.
When fully charged, the thing can go about 35 mi. on battery-power alone. After that, the gas engine kicks in automatically, and you can continue for another 300 mi. or so at regular highway speeds. So, if you've got a short commute, or rarely wander far, you can eschew the gas pump altogether. And the EPA gives the electric/gas combo a 60 mpg rating. Hey OPEC, Pffftttt! It's pretty nifty package of technology, but pricey — $40K or more.
During one of my first drives, I got to thinking — the near total silence of the car invites quiet reflection — about a luncheon discussion the previous day with two long-time and successful business aviation veterans. As we dissected and examined the industry's vexing circumstances, both of my tablemates posited that the tough times could be permanent — an ugly thought.
Their point was that habits, technology, preferences and markets undergo change continuously as new people replace those who precede them. They suggested the new, internet-Skype-WiFi-Facebook generation has different views, values and ways to get things done, and may not put much store in face-to-face meetings, which are really the reason someone invests $20 million in a business jet.
If that generational shift is true, business aviation's current troubles will soon be followed by an earthquake.
But I recently got a letter suggesting we might not need to run for shelter just yet. Mind you, that's not what the letter said — rather, it was a family update from an old friend, and included photos — but what it signified. The vast majority of my mail today is digital, overwhelming and often a total waste. The paltry amount the postman delivers is mostly bills, credit card applications and charity solicitations. So, when I spy an actual letter, with my name hand-written on the stamped envelope, I am excited to know that someone considers me worth such effort, and reading it becomes my priority.
I believe face-to-face meetings strike those same chords, but with much more force, year of birth notwithstanding. Heidi Wood, the top aerospace analyst with Morgan Stanley thinks the same way. She says that while digital communications are pervasive today, “nothing replaces eye-to-eye contact and a handshake.” And I further believe the value of such presence grows with effort, which often equates with distance, a relevant factor in the growing global economy. To wit: You crossed a continent and an ocean to visit with me? I'm honored. Please take a seat, and let's talk.
Even as technology advances and new generations assume control, lots of things will remain as always. The Volt is part of a wave of new electric and hybrid vehicles presumably aimed primarily at the Gen-Xers and Millennials. And election year criticism notwithstanding, the purpose of the Volt, along with the Telsa, Nissan LEAF, Toyota Prius, et al, is exactly as it was for their grandfathers' post-war, all American, gas-guzzling Desotos, Oldsmobiles and Studebakers — to transport people to work, to buy groceries, to attend school plays, football games, Boy Scout meetings and church on Sunday. In a word, to keep the country advancing.
And I expect business airplanes will realize a similar recovery. After all there's work to be done and people to meet.