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Inside NetJets Control Room

How NetJets workers manage the world's sixth largest airline
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Air Sick, Jul/Aug 02

It's 8:30 a.m. on an April morning in Columbus, Ohio, and Richard Smith wants to know two things: what's the day's weather going to be like -- everywhere in the country -- and how many times were his flights -- all 271 of them -- delayed the day before?

The executive vice president of the NetJets fractional jet ownership program is presiding over the daily meeting with the operation's division managers. The little conference-room general, who sometimes refers to himself by his suit size -- 42 short -- belies his diminutive stature with a king-size presence. He's zeroing in on the two concerns that are significant in his world, where jets are guaranteed to be delivered anywhere in the country at the drop of a hat: what can go wrong in the next 24 hours and what went wrong in the past 24? A couple dozen employees surround two large tables, hanging on every word and staring at two projection screens carrying computer images of what is being discussed.

First comes the morning weather brief. A meteorologist reports showers throughout most of New England. High-level hazards will create plenty of turbulence throughout the Midwest and icing will occur in the Northwest. A pretty typical day of minor inconveniences.

"Yesterday we had 271 flights," Smith announces, and a bit of visible tension rolls through the room as everyone anticipates his next question. "How many delays?" In a world where customers pay a lot of money to experience trouble-free flight, delays of only a few minutes that might go unnoticed at a commercial airline get a lot of scrutiny. As it turns out, there are only a handful and they lasted only a couple of minutes. Tension melts a little.

Then comes a maintenance report. NetJets manages more than 450 private planes, making it -- in number of craft -- the sixth largest airline in the world. Seventy of those planes were out of service the day before. NetJets planes constantly rotate through maintenance, not just to fix problems with engines, airframes and avionics, but to clean interiors and, every 30 months, to completely refurbish them. All similar models are supposed to look the same inside. While owners invest in a piece of a specific plane and ride a different one almost every time, the tail number, not a funky cabin, should be their only indication that it's not always the same aircraft. The mechanical division weighs in: "We're looking at getting 10 to 12 of those aircraft up today."

A quick look at the previous week's worth of flights shows figures from 256 to 352 flights a day; the normal average is 350 flights. Some 259 are expected today, but the number will change according to the whims of the owners, who are assured they can get a plane in four to six hours, depending on the type of craft they own. Over the weekend, traffic dropped precipitously. But the coming Sunday is expected to present a challenge to the staff. Ten days of the year are exceptions to the four-to-six-hour delivery guarantee. Most of those days fall around holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. But, with some 55 professional golfers and many well-connected fans among the 2,500 or so NetJets owners, the final day of the Masters tournament also falls into that category of dispensation for the company. Of the 300 planes expected on the tarmac of the airfield at Augusta, Georgia, Sunday afternoon, 80 will be from NetJets. As it turns out, one of the service's most high profile owners, Tiger Woods, will be the winner.

Smitty, as their commander is known, stares at his troops. For a moment the tension quotient shoots up, only to be released again by his exhortation: "Thank you very much. Let's do it!" Called to battle, they move back to their posts.

For a company that is touted by satisfied customers as a "time machine," delays are the enemy, not a hazard of the business as they have become in the commercial airline world. When Woods was stuck in Asia with a grounded plane, it took NetJets four hours to replace it. As one employee put it: "When a [commercial airline] loses a plane, the hopeful solution might be having another one 24 hours later. With us, that's just not acceptable."

As I was a passenger on one of those 271 flights of the day before, their movement and rate of delay might have been of pressing interest to me had I not just had one of my best flight experiences ever.

Imagine: Your limousine pulls up to a gate at the airport. A guard checks your ID, the gate swings open and you walk 50 feet to a waiting jet. Your luggage goes straight into the baggage compartment. You climb immediately into the cabin. After a quick rundown on safety procedures, the plane taxis to the runway and zooms into the sky. You're met at the other end by a car waiting at your plane, your bags moved immediately to the trunk. Welcome to the no-hassle world of private air travel.

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