(Getty/Alexander Klein/Kubrak78/Salon)

How the one percent put the fix in at 30,000 feet

Sure, private jets give politicians more of their most precious commodity, time. But that comes at a cost to us all


Lucian K. Truscott IV
September 20, 2017 11:00PM (UTC)

How long has it been since you’ve seen some burled walnut? Not familiar with the stuff, you say? I guess it’s been quite a while then, hasn’t it. I don’t blame you. Used to be, you’d run across it fairly frequently — burled walnut on the dashboard on a Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special in the 50’s or 60’s, or maybe the Fleetwood Brougham in the 70’s or 80’s. Top-of-the-line Mercedes had some in their interiors, and of course there was so much burled walnut in a Rolls Royce or Bentley, it felt like being in the woods.

Expensive stuff, burled walnut. And very rare. Same with birdseye maple, which you’d also run across in high end cars back in the day. It turns out that a sugar maple or black walnut tree has to get sick to produce these rare hardwoods. A burl is a growth a tree forms when it’s injured or develops a fungus or virus. The burl surrounds the injured part to protect the rest of the tree. Birdseye patterns in maple wood are formed when a sugar maple grows too close to other trees. Trying to get sunlight, the shoots out buds which die off and form tiny knots in the wood. Cut in thin slices to form a veneer, the sunlight-deprived maple or walnut burls reveal uncommonly beautiful patterns in the wood — the kind of patterns that look good on the dashboards of expensive automobiles, and as it happens, on wall panels and table tops of private jets.

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Hit Google and have a gander the interiors of these things. It’s the fucking 70’s up there on Gulfstreams and Falcons and Bombardiers and Cessnas. The seats look like something out of an Angelo Donghia showroom on Lexington Avenue, the sofas like the ones Liza Minelli and Halston lounged on at Studio 54 — all neutral colored overstuffed and pillowy — plop-things with arch-modern rounded ultra-comfy arms, and the side tables are polished burled walnut, natch. There’s the occasional flash of marble, and the indirect lighting! Yards and yards of overhead and under counter fixtures designed to — what’s the word? Yes! To flatter! To give you that 10 years younger glow, like you just stepped off your beach in St. Barts. Except your beach in St. Barts is three feet deep in roof tiles and sheets of tin and dead flipped-over SUV’s at the moment, awaiting clean up by the help. But you get what I mean.

You’re flying around up there 29,000 feet above the schmucks standing in the TSA line getting ready to jam themselves into a 17 inch wide upright coffin, and you’re looking and feeling like a million bucks, and man, you’ve made it! You’re among the privileged few who get to fly on one of the 12,000 or so private jets that scream in and out of places like Palm Beach and East Hampton and Santa Monica! You don’t wait in those security lines! You don’t take off your damn shoes and belt! You want to take your fuzzy little Yapso Apso on your lap? Great! You want to talk to your broker on your brand new I Phone quadruple X? Go right ahead! You want someone to call ahead and arrange for a foot massage in the backseat of your Mongo-stretcho blacked out bullet-proof Suburban when you touch down in Aspen? Done! Welcome aboard!

You’ve heard of the Friendly Skies? Meet the We’ve Got Ours So Fuck You Skies. It’s very, very exclusive up there. According to a recent story in Forbes, the average number of people on a private jet flight in this country is 4.12. Twelve percent of them decided to fly and made the booking on the same day. At the bottom end of the private jet cost structure is a typical flight on an Embraer jet seating four from Miami to the Bahamas for about $7,500. That’s four people traveling 181 miles taking less than 30 minutes for $1,875 each. An average long range private jet charter costs $76,500.

Who owns these things? Have a look at these figures from CNBC and take a big fat guess. Private jets can cost from $3 million to $90 million, although the Sultan of Brunei and guys like him have spent upwards of $230 million on an Airbus 340-12 decorated like Trump’s New York apartment in gold and precious stones. Down-to-earth ordinary multi-millionaires and billionaires can spend anywhere between $700,000 to $4 million to operate their own jets. That’s per-year, not over the life of the plane, which they usually trade in after four years and buy a brand new one.

But the zillionaires aren’t the only ones doing the high-flyin’ of course. The American political class has decided that they really can’t do with this plebeian TSA shoeless Joe shit and waiting for Rows 32 to 39 to be called for seating. Not today they can’t. See, our politicians could put up with standing in line and flying coach back when boring stuff like the Cold War was going on, and the United States and Russia were facing each other down with nuclear weapons over missiles in Cuba and we were sending 500,000 young men a year to “fight for freedom” in Vietnam, because they didn’t really have any pressing business. But today is different. There’s so much Really Important Shit going on in Washington D.C.! Our Congress can’t pass a bill renaming a post office in Peoria, but the political class can’t be kept waiting! They’re wanted back in their districts to, uh, well, er, ahhh, what is it they’re wanted for anyway? Oh, I remember now! To raise money so they can run for re-election and get back to Washington to sit around and wait for CNN or Fox to call so they can go on the TV and talk about how why they want to strip health insurance from 20 million or so of their fellow citizens, or why they think it’s a really, really wonderful idea to dispatch 8,000 or so warm bodies over to Afghanistan so they can continue “fighting” the “war” the politicians have been telling us that we’ve been “winning” for the past 16 fucking years. Or something anyway.

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It took the ethics reform following the Jack Abramoff scandal of 2007 to put the brakes on politicians flying around the country on Gulfstreams owned by their favorite corporate executives looking for a little influence peddling at 30,000 feet. Nowadays, politicians can accept flights on their friends’ jets but they have to compensate them by paying the cost of a First Class ticket for a comparable commercial flight. So let’s see. Operating a Gulfstream G2 from Los Angeles to London roundtrip costs about $160,000. A round trip first class ticket on commercial air is about $8,800. So our prospective congressman or senator would pay about five percent of the actual cost to fly on his billionaire buddy’s Gulfstream. Pretty good deal, huh?

Far more common is the practice of chartering private jets. Donald Trump’s campaign spent tens of millions on air travel between July 2015 and Nov. 2017. $9.3 million alone was paid out by the campaign to TAG Air to charter Trump’s own 757-200 private jet — which cost the Trump Organization more than $100 million, what with its gold plated bathroom fixtures and seat belt closures and all. According to National Journal, Trump spent more money on jet fuel than on campaign staff over the course of the campaign.

The campaign of Hillary Clinton made some 48 payments of more than $2 million chartering private jets from June 2015 to January 2016, according to FEC documents. According to the Las Vegas Review Journal, one of her contracts for a speech to a convention specified that she required a 16 person “Gulfstream 450 or larger jet” for the occasion. Elsewhere, it’s been widely reported that the Clinton Foundation spent more than $50 million in travel expenses over the ten years from 2003 to 2013. You don’t run up those kinds of bills flying coach and staying in the Comfort Inn.

According to a 2014 story in Politico, Clinton’s potential rival, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee spent more than $250,000 on private jets to travel around the country making political speeches when he was considering his run for the White House. Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates spent similar amounts on private jets during the primary.

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The political tip-sheet Roll Call spoke to Meredith McGehee, of the Campaign Legal Center, one of the groups that pushed for the reform of congressional ethics when it was revealed that former House Speaker Tom Delay was given a ride on a tobacco company private jet on his way to making a court appearance. "The dangers are grave because the benefits are so valued. Time is valuable. It’s a very valuable thing," McGehee said. “Such flights provide a great opportunity for the very select class of people that can afford to own a private airplane to win goodwill and some face time with members, she explained,” Roll Call pointed out.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his wife “actress” Louise Linton took a government jet last month to fly out to Kentucky on a spurious visit to check up on the Gold Depository at Fort Knox that just happened to coincide with the eclipse of the sun that would be visible from there that day. We’ve also learned that the newlywed Mnunchins asked for a $25,000 private government jet to take them on their European honeymoon in August because, as the good Treasury Secretary explained, he needed the jet as his “mobile office.”

Last week, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price took five flights on chartered private jets over a two day period for travel around the east coast. Two of the flights were round trip between Washington D.C. and Philadelphia, a distance of 135 miles. According to Politico, chartering a private jet to make those flights would cost about $25,000, while making the trip on the train would have cost $72 per person each way. Going by car would have taken two and half hours and cost about $30 each way in gas, plus tolls.

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The thing with all of this travel by politicians on private jets is that they may be public servants, but they’re not the public, are they? You get to be a Trump, a Clinton, a Huckabee or a Price, and the rules are written so that you don’t have to live like the rest of us. The Congress put a Band- Aid on the problem when they mandated that government officials taking a ride on a private jet only have to pay the equivalent of a first class airfare for the same flight. They could have done the obvious, of course. You’re a congressman or a cabinet secretary and you want to fly up to some resort or back home to your district on a private jet, then charter one and pay the full cost of the charter. Democrats like the Clintons have made the utterly stupid mistake of ceding the high ground with their exploitation of these rules by joining Republicans in private jet-setting around the country. We expect Republicans to cozy up to corporate chieftains on their private jets, but Democrats? What was Hillary thinking when she was out of office and demanding Gulfstream 450’s for her speaking engagements? Nobody would notice?

And that pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it? Time is money, and the wealthy and their political lackeys have been able to use the one to buy the other with their Gulfstreams and Falcons and Bombardiers. They don’t wait in line. Nobody tells them to turn off their cell phones and other electronic devices. A big black car drops them off at the steps to a gleaming jet and moments later, they’re aloft, above the fray, flying over the heads of the rest of us plebes down here dragging our crummy carry-ons and sweating out whether we remembered to take that damn bottle of mouthwash and transfer three ounces of it into a little travel bottle and stick that goddamned thing in a fucking plastic bag, or somebody in dark trousers and a blue shirt is going to tell us to open our bag and go jamming their hands in our underwear and socks until they come up with the offending bottle of dangerous mouthwash so we can be given the choice of going back to the counter and checking it, or throwing the damn stuff in the nearby trash bin supplied for just that purpose.

You want to talk about income inequality? It’s not just income. It’s not just lifestyle. It’s not just second homes in the Hamptons and the occasional $350,000 Ferrari. It’s a whole class of people who have achieved the Dream of Modern Wealth. They can’t get away from us in restaurants, which allow us to smack our lips right next to them if we, too, can pay $75 for an organic pork chop from a guy up the Hudson Valley with three pigs he hand raises and gives a back rub to every night. They can’t leave us behind on the highway, where even they are subject to the indignity of the speed limit. They can’t move completely away from us, because Manhattan and San Francisco apartment buildings, sadly, have been built next to other apartment buildings where lowly plebes are still permitted to reside if they have $5,700 a month for a studio apartment over near the High Line. But by god, they can fly above us in the clouds swaddled in glove soft leather, sipping champagne from actual glass flutes, their tans back-lit by custom LED’s, their Manolo’s and John Lobbs kicked casually into the aisle, their Laradoodles sitting on the overstuffed lounger across the table snacking on scraps of filet mignon from the lunch entrée. Nobody’s going to comment, nobody’s going to complain, because there’s nobody there but the reflection they can see in the polished burled walnut table atop which they drum their manicured fingers as they wait for the wheels of their Gulfstream to touch down any goddamn place they want them to.

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Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives on the East End of Long Island and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. He can be followed on Facebook at The Rabbit Hole and on Twitter @LucianKTruscott.

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