Until recently, the Teterboro Airport, just twelve miles west of midtown Manhattan, was synecdochical for the New York Dream. It was a landmark of the social geography mapped by “Page Six,” Fortune, and Gossip Girl. “Teterboro!” the narrator of Plum Sykes’s bubble novel Bergdorf Blondes rhapsodized, riffing on “PJs” — private jets, which take off and land there. “All New York girls know that ugly word means something very pretty. Teterboro means ‘I have a plane.’”
During the boom, what was once the uninviting, utilitarian, secretive province of corporate chieftains sallying forth to complete deals and visit factories became the site of an almost public aspirational performance. In August 2005, Amy Sacco launched Air Bungalow, a flying-lounge business. Last summer, “Page Six” reported that George Michael’s plane was delayed behind Sting’s and Bruce Springsteen’s jets, suggesting that Teterboro had a celebrity pecking order (actually, the air-traffic controllers have no idea whose plane is whose). The U.S. extraordinarily rendered Maher Arar to Syria in 2002 via a chartered Gulfstream III out of Teterboro. The airport is so important that when Gulfstream designed its new G650, the plane’s weight was capped at 99,600 pounds in order to come in under Teterboro’s 100,000-pound limit.
But as PJ culture adjusts to the post-TARP world order, the iconic status of Manhattan’s most elite jetport is up for grabs. These days, Teterboro means: “Please don’t tell anyone you saw me here.” After years of steady growth, the charter jet business is off as much as 45 percent, traffic at Teterboro has dropped by a third, and jet sales have collapsed, leading the big manufacturers to lay off thousands of people. The crisis began last November, when the CEOs of the automakers flew private to Washington looking for a bailout. Then, in January, Citigroup, flush with $45 billion in taxpayer money, had to be shamed into canceling its order for a $50 million Dassault Falcon 7X. And the following month, in an address to Congress, President Obama denounced CEOs who “disappear on private jet[s],” and ABC News scrambled a helicopter over Teterboro to film Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis deplaning from a $50 million G5 that cost $5,000 an hour to operate.
A former CEO with experience flying in and out of Teterboro likens private jets to “crack,” and even as the industry attempts to stay on message about private aviation being “a business tool,” it has faced an unrelenting series of embarrassing revelations, such as The Wall Street Journal’s recent report that even after receiving bailout money, bank CEOs including Morgan Stanley’s John Mack and the aforementioned, singularly tone-deaf Ken Lewis were apparently using company jets to fly to their vacation homes. Also not helping with the image of private airports as drab, sober instruments of commerce is their compulsive use by celebrities; as we were walking out of the offices of Teterboro-based flight-services company Meridian, after several hours of listening to reasonable explanations of the importance of private aviation to American industry, Paris Hilton tumbled out of an SUV with her newish reality-show boyfriend and an armful of shopping bags, about to board a jet to L.A.
Andrew Ladouceur, who charters out Gulfstream G-IVs, Dassault Falcons, and Bombardier Challengers for Meridian (which also refuels and hangars planes and has a posh terminal), says he has recently been receiving fewer calls from companies under scrutiny and that he’s had people who were flying to Washington send their private drivers ahead to the capital because they didn’t want to be seen being picked up by a limousine there. “There were people outside the fence taking pictures of tail numbers,” Meridian CEO Ken Forrester says he was informed.
In February, the industry launched a PR and lobbying campaign with the slogan “No Plane No Gain.” “Business aviation exists in every state and in every congressional district, so once you are on Capitol Hill, and you explain how many companies in those districts use it, and how many jobs are involved, they recognize the value,” a spokesman for the National Business Aviation Association told us. The comically impossible-to-defend industries of the Thank You for Smoking nineties — guns, tobacco, and alcohol — have some new company: corporate jets.