An Excellent WSJ Probe Finds Corporate Jet Abuse

The Wall Street Journal has a terrific investigation into executive abuse of corporate jets and shows that companies are violating the law by misleading investors about it.

How did Mark Maremont and Tom McGinty get the story?

To analyze corporate flying patterns, the Journal obtained, via a Freedom of Information Act request, records of every private aircraft flight recorded in the FAA’s air-traffic system from 2007 through 2010. These included flights previously blocked from public view.

The Journal calculated the percentage of each plane’s flights to a list of 300 locales it determined were more likely to be leisure destinations than business. That excluded major cities such as Miami, New York and Paris, and included spots like Palm Beach, Aspen, Colo., and the Bahamas. The list wasn’t exhaustive, and was meant to serve as a rough proxy for potential leisure travel.

This is smart stuff, and if the Journal had stopped there and written its story, it would have been a very good one. What makes it great is that they took it a step further, calculating the cost of personal trips and comparing that to what companies disclosed to investors. And whaddya know? They found that some companies are giving their executives far more $5,000 an hour luxury jet time than they’re telling investors.

Because personal jet use is a lucrative form of executive compensation, the law says companies have to disclose how much it cost the company to fly its execs around when it’s not business-related.

The Journal has one of its classic ledes—it’s understated and all-the-more damning for it:

Computer-storage giant EMC Corp. has a fleet of five jets that it says it uses for business travel across the globe. In addition, CEO Joseph Tucci is allowed “limited” personal use of the aircraft.

Federal Aviation Administration flight records for EMC’s planes suggest such personal trips may be more frequent. Over the four years ended last December, EMC jets landed a total of 393 times at three resort locations where Mr. Tucci has vacation homes: Cape Cod, Mass.; the New Jersey shore; and the Florida keys.

One of EMC’s jets devoted 46% of its flights going to or from these and other vacation spots over the four years. Fleet-wide, 31% of EMC flights were to or from resorts.

Again, that would have been very good, but the Journal went further:

EMC pegged the cost to shareholders of Mr. Tucci’s personal flying at $664,079 over the four-year period, which represented 97% of all personal-aircraft usage for its executives. The Journal’s estimate of the cost of EMC’s flights to or from just the airports near the CEO’s homes was closer to $3.1 million.


But wait a second. Think about that 393 number for a minute and how many times you’d have to fly to hit that. It works out to an average 98 flights a year over the four-year period to Tucci’s vacation homes. That’s nearly two a week. To put it another way: There are only 52 weekends a year. What’s up with that? Can one person really fly that much to three vacation spots? Probably not. Who else was flying there?

The Journal has other good anecdotes, including this one:

In 2009, Leucadia National Corp., a New York City-based conglomerate, reported less than $30,000 on personal flying for Chairman Ian Cumming. FAA records show Leucadia’s four jets that year spent 220 hours flying to or from Jackson Hole, Wyo., and New York’s Hamptons, both locations where Mr. Cumming owns homes. Those flights alone would have cost $708,000, according to Journal calculations using hourly operating-cost estimates provided by Conklin & de Decker Aviation Information, a consulting firm.

To top it all off, Maremont and McGinty land the Quote of the Day from this guy (emphasis mine):

Stewart Reifler, an attorney at Vedder Price in New York who represents executives in negotiating pay packages, said the cost of truly personal trips should be reported, but said it is hard to distinguish a CEO’s work time from his leisure time. “Even if they go to a resort,” he said, “they’re still reviewing papers, looking at their BlackBerrys and talking on the phone. You just can’t compartmentalize these guys’ lives.”

Right. I guess I should bill CJR for breakfast and lunch because I read the business papers while I eat. What do you think, Dean?

You just can’t compartmentalize these guys’ corporate looting. One thing I wish the Journal would have reported here is the size of these CEOs’ total compensation packages. Tucci, for instance, made an average $9 million (PDF, see page 56) a year in cash and stock from 2008 to 2010. That’s helpful context when talking about these guys not paying their way to the Keys and whatnot.

But that’s a quibble. This is a great piece. And the cherry on top is that the Journal has set up a tool that anybody can use to search its database for corporate jet flights. It didn’t have to do that, and it could have hoarded its info for future stories. It’s a sweet example of the Journal using the Internet to perform a public service.


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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,