THE ABSOLUTE BEST WAY TO FLY Despite a decade of cost cutting, the company jet remains a fixture in the empyrean of corporate America. But it sure isn't anything CEOs like to discuss.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – IF HEMINGWAY AND Fitzgerald could update one of their more memorable bits of repartee, it might go something like this: ''Ernest, the rich are different from you and me.'' ''Yes, Scott, they have more money . . . and they fly G IV's.'' For benefit of the unwashed, the G IV, or Gulfstream Four, is a very sexy, $27 million, 12-passenger airplane that costs about $2,500 an hour to operate and is the undisputed queen of private jets. A few wealthy individuals own G IV's -- Bill Cosby, David Geffen, Julio Iglesias, and various Arab royals -- but most of the 239 flying today are owned by large corporations, which use them to zip their top executives around the world, or just down the road. Gulfstream says its planes are flown by more than 60% of the companies in the FORTUNE 50. But lest you get the wrong idea about the 40% who don't fly Gulfstreams, most of them own other snappy planes in the long-haul, large- business-jet category: Canadair's $19 million Challenger 601 or Falcon Jet's $23 million Falcon 900. The list of corporate titans who breathe the rare air of Gulfstream cabins includes lots of names familiar to FORTUNE readers: Coke's Roberto Goizueta, Cox Enterprises' Anne Cox Chambers, Disney's Michael Eisner, Eastman Kodak's George Fisher, GE's Jack Welch, IBM's Lou Gerstner, and Time Warner's Gerald Levin, to name just a handful. Many of their companies operate fleets of the planes to accommodate lesser executives. Coke flies three G IV's and a G III (an earlier model), while its Coca-Cola Enterprises spinoff has some other Gulfstreams. Time Warner flies two G IV's and a G III, and its various divisions fly other planes, including Time Inc. -- publisher of FORTUNE -- which uses a Challenger 601. Executives at PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, Xerox, Texaco, and Cigna fly Challengers. It's true that these aren't the best times for some users of corporate aircraft, at least compared with the Eighties. IBM has cut back from two Gulfstreams to one; American Express has dropped from four Gulfstreams to three; and some of the more notoriously large fleets have all but disappeared in the cost-conscious post-LBO culture -- the fabled RJR Nabisco 11-plane air force, for example, is now a mere four. But the demise of the corporate fleet has been greatly exaggerated. Both Gulfstream and Canadair say they sell between 20 and 25 jets a year, numbers that are the same as -- or, for Canadair, greater than -- a few years back. THE COMPANIES that own these planes, as well as those that sell them, go to great lengths to justify their expense on various utilitarian grounds: security, flexibility, efficient use of time, responsiveness to customers, competitive stealth -- all valid points. At its simplest, the argument goes like this: ''Figure out what your CEO is earning an hour, then ask yourself if you really want him wasting two days traveling by commercial air to call on a customer who could be reached in hours on a corporate jet.'' How else can a CEO do breakfast with his investment banker in New York, buy lunch for an important senator in Washington, and still make a benefit in Los Angeles that evening sponsored by a key client? Or, if the company is truly global, how could senior executives visit and conduct major events in Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Austria in just four days -- as I have actually seen accomplished by a U.S. company on one of its G IV's? To further the concept of the corporate plane as ''flying office,'' the National Business Aircraft Association commissioned a study by Arthur Andersen & Co. that concludes, among other things, that companies purchasing airplanes over a five-year period averaged 7% higher sales growth than those that didn't; also, the FORTUNE 500 companies that produced the greatest return to investors over a ten-year period were aircraft operators. They may actually be essential, but wherever corporate aircraft appear -- especially the big ones -- the issue of the ''royal barge'' inevitably rears its ugly head, sometimes raised by dissident stockholders, or the press, or rank-and-file workers, especially those facing layoffs. Even without taking sides on the issue, it is a difficult one to ignore. There is no sharper demarcation in executive lifestyle -- not country club memberships or exclusive residences or secret societies -- than that drawn between the guy who can have his assistant tell his Gulfstream pilot that he wants wheels up at 7:15 A.M. from the White Plains/Westchester airport and the guy who slugs it out every day on the tarmac at La Guardia or O'Hare or LAX -- waiting . . . and waiting . . . and waiting to be propelled through some money-losing airline's sclerotic hub-and-spoke system. Even if you grant every single point argued about the business efficacy of the corporate jet, the culture in which it operates is still very much about comfort, usually at a level that can only be described as regal, and occasionally even imperial. A confession: Your correspondent has flown on these barges a number of times, always in pursuit of a story, of course. A typical trip aboard a CEO's G IV -- synthesized from my experiences with several different corporations -- goes something like this. It begins at the company's private hangar, which may range in style from pleasant utilitarian to boardroom opulent -- oriental carpets, say, oil paintings, and dark paneling. When the limo of his CEOness arrives, it pulls right up to the plane's gangway, or, if he's coming by helicopter, it lands nearby. After little or no wait, we climb onboard and vault into the sky, smoothly, quietly. Soon, a steward appears; stewardesses serve less frequently in executive aircraft these days because wives don't want them onboard. He offers an appealing selection of food and drink. The standard decor is subdued elegance, paneling of cherry, rosewood, or mahogany, carpeting of low-pile plush, in muted colors. Executive demeanor onboard varies widely. Some execs stay totally dressed for business. Others slip off their coat and tie and don a comfortable sweater and slippers. One I know rips off his suit and hops into a jogging suit. My favorite personal moment: being offered a warm sandwich and a cold glass of milk just before bedding down in my berthable seat about a third of the way over the Atlantic. Pop-up bars, televisions with VCRs, and those little electronic map displays are typical amenities. And for around a half million dollars, a satellite communications system can provide full telephone service for conversation, faxing, or data transmission. Corporate jets arrive in style, too, landing at private aviation terminals, where limos await the execs. If it's an overseas landing, customs and immigration are handled discreetly, usually by one or two gentlemen who collect passports, then disappear for a couple of minutes before returning them with polite smiles. Okay, it's still business travel, not golf or sex. But it has its moments, this flying along at 600 mph 30,000 feet above the fray with a close circle of associates, enjoying the flexibility to touch down here and there at will. And life at the top looks better all the time to those falling victim to the struggling commercial airlines as they stuff more and more passengers into ''the tube'' and offer fewer and fewer amenities. Off the record, more than a few retiring, or retired, top executives will admit that the jet is the perk they miss the most. ''It is like going through the looking glass,'' says one recently retired corporate chieftain, who admits to vigorously pursuing rides with friends still in command of their company airships. One recently retired FORTUNE 50 president signed on for the largely symbolic chairmanship of a firm completely out of his field in return for the simplest of all compensation agreements: use of the Gulfstream. On the record, however, there is absolutely no subject that CEOs would rather not talk about than the corporate jet -- a subject almost never broached in the annual report. Companies sometimes skirt reporting requirements by leasing aviation services from a wholly owned subsidiary. With no particular ax to grind, we tried to get some companies to talk about their top executives' planes. But of 20 companies in the FORTUNE 100 whom we asked, more than half served up flat-out nos. Typical of their comments: ''We won't be able to comment.'' -- Eastman Kodak. ''We don't get into these details externally.'' -- General Motors. ''We're going to be very reluctant to answer anything . . . I'd rather just cut and run right now, honestly . . . I'd really like to beg off that one.'' -- Mobil Corp. Warren Buffett, on the other hand, doesn't mind taking on the subject from time to time. The chairman of Berkshire Hathaway -- and one of America's wealthiest individuals -- Buffett for years spoke out against the very concept of corporate jets as a waste of money. A few years ago, however, he broke down and bought a small, used jet for $850,000. As a joke in the annual report, Buffett, in teeny-tiny type under the heading ''Miscellaneous,'' whispered: ''We bought a corporate jet last year.'' Then, in standard type, he elaborated: Such planes, he said, ''not only cost a lot to operate, they also cost a lot just to look at. Pretax, cost of capital plus depreciation on a new $15 million plane probably runs $3 million annually . . . Whether Berkshire will get its money's worth from the plane is an open question, but I will work at achieving some business triumph that I can (no matter how dubiously) attribute to it.'' In a later annual report, Buffett announced that he had sold the first plane and bought another used jet -- still not anything approaching the Gulfstream class -- for $6.7 million. He named it the Indefensible. One of Buffett's good friends, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, is another billionaire executive who has occasionally spoken out about the ''decadence'' of the corporate jet and whose public legend includes frequent sightings in coach class on commercial airliners. In private, however, he also spends quite a bit of time chartering a Challenger from his friend and Microsoft co- founder, Paul Allen -- Gates used it to return from his Pacific wedding. And lately he has been regularly chartering G IV's from a California service, sparking rumors that he may be contemplating a purchase. SUCH RUMORS run rife all the time in the universe of the large private jet, mostly because the market for the ''big iron'' -- as corporate pilots refer to Gulfstreams and their peers -- is so limited. Only about 1,100 such jets, of all makes, are in service, and Gulfstream estimates that worldwide only about 4,200 customers have the wherewithal to acquire its planes, including some 40 governments that fly them. An individual is likely to need a net worth of at least $400 million to qualify as a G IV purchaser, and a typical company needs at least $1.5 billion in sales, according to Gulfstream executive vice president Bob Cooper, who has been selling corporate jets since the Sixties. How to sell a jet: Selling a Gulfstream to a first-time purchaser usually involves a process that lasts about two years, Cooper says. And if the customer is a CEO, the biggest challenge is not, as you might expect, the hefty pricetag. Rather, it is image. ''You get a guy to the point where he has the 'hardly waits,' '' says Cooper, ''and then he'll say, 'You know, I'd love to have one of these planes, but what are my people going to think? What are my shareholders going to say?' '' But occasionally, Cooper observes, a company will buy a Gulfstream to enhance its image. ''It's a way of saying, 'Hey, we're back.' '' One thing Cooper has learned over the years is that ''you never know who's behind the purchase of a plane.'' While the corporate flight department rarely makes the actual decision, it must be sold on the technical merits and service support of the planes. Directors who already own Gulfstreams can be very influential in making a sale. But a more important player can be the CEO's wife. ''Wives are behind the CEO's decisions on a lot of things, not just airplanes,'' says Cooper, who laughs when asked if he has any good war stories along these lines. ''Sure I do,'' he says, before clamming up. Another jet salesman agrees, saying the crucial moment in a deal comes when the CEO's wife ''takes off her shoes and starts decorating the plane.'' How to buy a jet: In a speech delivered to the exclusive Bohemian Club at its summer retreat some years ago, mining executive E.W. Littlefield explained in great detail how a CEO could methodically set about securing what he called the best perk of all, a good plane.

''What better way to show you've earned your wings?'' he asked, cautioning against going for the ''jackpot'' right off the bat, instead counseling to carefully plan the justifications step by step.

''First, acquire some corporate operations located in remote areas where there is little or no commercial airline service,'' he advised. Buy a modest little plane that you can use to demonstrate the executive time and wear and tear saved. Then, he said, ''you're almost home free.'' Next, you should take some directors on the small plane to those out-of-the- way sites, being careful to ''choose those far enough away so that the travel time exceeds the bladder capacity of the occupants and where air turbulence at lower altitudes is severe.'' After a decent interval from such a trip, Littlefield said, ''the purchase of a larger plane will sail through the board easily . . . Properly handled, there's a G III out there at the end of the rainbow to serve as your own imperial barge.'' ONCE ACQUIRED, the plane's log should contain enough entries for Texarkana or Gary, Indiana, to keep the IRS from lingering too long over all those Las Vegas, Bermuda, and Sea Island entries, he said. And finally, he advised, the ultimate triumph comes when you do whatever it takes to get a resolution through the board stating that ''because of the CEO's indispensability to the company's welfare -- and the possible threat to his person from terrorist attacks -- the CEO is required (indeed, ordered) to travel wherever he goes by company aircraft.'' % Littlefield's tongue-in-cheek speech contains more than a little kidding on the square. For all the disclaimers, these jets still bring out the instincts that boys have about the size of their toys. The acquisition of such an aircraft clearly marks some sort of ineffable status on the part of the acquirer. One source, explaining the motive behind Barry Diller's lust to take over Paramount last year, told a reporter, ''You want to know what the interactive revolution is really all about? David Geffen has a G IV and Barry Diller doesn't. Barry wants one.'' Diller does have a G II, but, of course, it's older and smaller. Occasionally, accusations of some boy abusing his toy still come to light. When Martin Emmett was ousted as CEO of Tambrands last year, for example, the press carried stories that certain ''lifestyle'' issues had contributed to his downfall, including an allegation that he chartered a corporate jet for a golfing trip. At the other end of the spectrum are companies like Wal-Mart Stores, whose founder, the late Sam Walton -- a pilot himself -- made aviation an integral part of his company's operations but hated the expense of jets. Most Wal-Mart executives constantly shuttle around the country on packed, uncomfortable company prop planes with no heads onboard, much less any lobster cocktails or Sonoma-Cutrer chardonnay. THE MAJORITY OPINION in the aircraft industry is that the broader future of corporate aviation lies somewhere between such extremes. The market for imperial barges simply may not be big enough, but an increasing number of companies are offering more efficient, work-friendly air shuttle services for employees outside the executive suite. Among companies providing such shuttles are General Motors, Corning, Philip Morris, Hewlett-Packard, Xerox, Intel, Ford, and Kimberly-Clark, which owns an airline, Midwest Express, and also has a general aviation business. ''The airlines are the biggest drivers of what's going to happen to us as an industry,'' says Bryan Moss, president of Canadair's business aircraft division, which makes the Challenger. ''And frankly I don't think they'll get it together. So to us, the goal isn't to sell more airplanes to CEOs. It's to broaden the market for business aviation.'' Toward that end, Canadair sells a sort-of stretch version of its Challenger called the Corporate Jetliner, which can be seen on the runway at White Plains, flying the regular guys and gals out with something at least approximating the same convenience as that enjoyed by the big boys. As for the rest of us, we must content ourselves with this burning question: Can our kids inherit frequent-flier miles?