Thursday, November 20, 2008

Let Them Fly Coach

When the heads of the "Big" Three automakers went to Washington to plead for a bailout, each flew in a private jet. Congress members noted the dissonance:

"It's almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in high hat and tuxedo," observed Gary Ackerman, D- of New York. Ouch!

Personal story: last summer, Cami and I got up at the crack of dawn to make a flight to Houston. While we waited at our gate, I noticed an important face seated across from us. It was Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy.

At the time, McClendon was personally worth well over $1.5 billion. Though his company was flying high, here he was, schlepping his way to Houston with the unwashed masses. When we boarded the plane, I noticed he was seated in coach.

Though I'm not a fan of McClendon, I was impressed by this gesture. His activities directly impact thousands of lives, from NBA players, to Wall Street financiers, to ballet dancers, to scores of average Americans. He could have easily flown on a chartered company jet, yet here he was, sitting in a cramped seat like the rest of us. The symbolism was powerful.

Sadly, the "Big" Three CEOs aren't about to suffer such discomfort. They're important men, with important jobs, and luxury travel is a perk of their state in life, even as their companies bleed dollars.

How much more effective would their appearance have been if each had driven to Washington in their own cars? They could have had press photographers follow their progress from Detroit to Washington, across the battered rust belt, with choreographed stops at threatened manufacturing facilities to rally their workers.

Nah, that would have been oh-so declassé.

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