Business travelers can find solace in the skies despite airlines tighter rules and regulations
By Kris Grant
Think back to the days when travel by air was an experience to be anticipated, remembered, savored. Back in our grandparents’ time, air travel was a luxury, airports weren’t congested and time wasn’t crunched. People got dressed up to climb aboard the Pan Am Clipper. Alas, as with all “luxury” items, the more we get used to it, the more devalued and mundane it becomes.
Going to the airport isn’t fun anymore, says Henry Schubach, owner of Schubach Aviation. “Traveling used to be kind of pleasant,” he observes. “Airlines used to use China and linen in first class; now if you check a bag, it’s $20.”
Today’s airlines focus more on getting from Point A to Point B in the best time and with the lowest possible price. We turned to two veteran business executives who travel nationally and internationally and to Schubach for advice that every corporate traveler can check into their overhead compartments.
Start with the basics
Andre Hardy is a big guy, a former NFL running back who played with the Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks. Now, he’s vice president of sales and marketing for Optelec US Inc., a manufacturer and distributor of optical devices for people who have lost much of their eyesight from macular degeneration. Hardy has racked up about 70 hotel nights so far this year as he calls upon 50 distributors throughout the county and also travels to meet with organizations such as the Foundation for Fighting Blindness and the Veterans Administration.
Hardy’s approach to travel is to start with the basics. “One basic is food,” he says. “All you get on a plane is carbs, and airport food will just about kill you. So I make a trip to Whole Foods where I get containers of fruit, some nuts and I really like their raw kale salad. Once I hit the ground, the first thing I do is figure out where the next Whole Foods is. I’ve been to Whole Foods in every part of the country and have sampled their regional dishes. I can tell you what they have at the Whole Foods in Austin that they don’t have in Miami. Places where they don’t have Whole Foods, I have the company send somebody else.”
Next comes comfort, both in clothing and seating. “If you were to see me on a plane, you might think I dress like a bum,” Hardy confesses. “I’m usually in sandals, sweats and T-shirts. It’s really so I can get through screening faster; I start undressing before I hit the line.
“I won’t take a flight if I can’t get an exit row seat where there is much more legroom. Sometimes I’ll choose a non-direct flight just to have that exit-row seat; it’s that important to me. I’m an aspiring writer so I need to spread out and I’m way too big to sit in the middle seat. I’ve narrowed down my airlines to Southwest, Jet Blue and sometimes American.”
At Southwest, Hardy is an A-list member, a perk that Southwest launched in 2007 that entitles passengers who take 32 or more flights in a year to have advanced automatic check-in and therefore better seats. “I jokingly say I fly first-class on Southwest,” says Hardy.
This month Southwest introduced a new “early bird” check in fee. For $10 extra, early-bird passengers can board the familiar A, B and C boarding groups – even before families with small children. Still Hardy’s status places him at the top of the boarding heap.
Hardy typically rents a car at each destination, preferring Hertz and Dollar. For hotels, he calls himself “A 100 percent Marriott guy.”
A big travel tip from Hardy: “Stay out of Chicago in the winter! If you have to make a connection you will get stuck. Make a connection at Dallas or go up to Denver.”
Hardy’s favorite airports to fly in and out of are New York’s JFK, and DC’s Dulles, “But nothing’s like coming home to San Diego,” he attests.
Personal service marks one airline
DC Cordova is a woman on a worldwide mission to eradicate poverty and hunger. As CEO of Excellerated Business Schools, she heads a company that teaches entrepreneurs how to build a business, make money and make a difference in their communities.
Cordova has racked up more than a million miles each with United and Malaysia airlines, the latter of which she ranks as one of the top five airlines in the world. “Their service is amazing,” says Cordova, who often flies business class from Los Angeles to Taiwan, but has also flown on Malaysia out of New Jersey to Europe and to the United Arab Emirates.
Malaysia’s flight attendants are very much aware of the business person, she says. “They assume you travel all the time. They communicate well to see what you need and want and then create tremendous rapport. If a meal is to be served on the flight, they’ll ask me in advance if they should wake me if I plan to sleep. They address you by your name. They have an assumption that you are a lifetime customer. I understand from friends who fly coach they are treated in the same way, so it’s not about the money.”
Jet lag is something that international travelers must constantly combat. “In two years time they will have an airplane where you won’t have jet lag,” Cordova says. “Jet lag comes from not having enough oxygen and there’s new technology coming.”
For now, Cordova combats jet lag in two ways. “I get hyperbaric treatments before I leave,” she said. “Have you ever noticed how a bottle shrinks up on an airplane? That’s from lack of oxygen and the same thing happens to you. So if you can have at least three hyperbaric treatments you will not only take care of your jet lag but you protect your immune system.” She also takes Ecanasia and other immune boosters with her on her travels.
Cordova begins preparing a week in advance for international trips by staying up later and getting up later in the day to get in synch with her destination’s time zone. And she exercises — walking or rebounding on a small trampoline to raise her metabolism. She hasn’t consumed alcoholic drinks for 30 years, and advises that it is one of the most damaging things to do before or during a flight.
Cordova takes an extra outfit in her carry-on luggage, in case her checked bags get waylaid, which has only happened to her once. “If you have a meeting two or three hours after a flight, you don’t have time to go shopping and there might not be your type of clothing available,” she cautions. She also keeps the most important documents for a meeting with her carry-on bag. While she does bring an adapter for her Apple converter, she leaves a blow dryer at home, as she’s found all hotels have them.
How much is your time worth?
Henry Schubach has just returned from Dallas and greets Brailey, his Golden Retriever, and Bob, a Tibetan “mutt” who have the run of his spacious office at the Premier Jet building at Palomar Airport. Here, Schubach operates his jet charter service along with two maintenance businesses, one for larger turbo-powered airplanes and an avionics shop now doing light aircraft maintenance.
In an era when San Diego’s Airport Authority commissioners are taking heat for exceeding travel expense guidelines and auto executives are berated by Congress for taking corporate jets to Washington to beg for bail-out funds, there remains a strong demand and rational need for charter services, Schubach contends. He says he can’t understand why those automakers didn’t defend themselves. “They could have said, ‘Senator, I worked three hours at my office this morning and I’ll be home today in time for a follow-up meeting. I can’t do that on a scheduled airline.’”
Another benefit for chartered planes is added privacy and security, says Schubach, who counts among his clients successful, wealthy San Diegans and occasional celebrities. “We’ll sometimes fly up to LA, but there are some names around here that you would recognize,” he says, noting that celebrity clients are “usually very low maintenance because they generally want to be left alone.”
Aircraft in the Schubach fleet offer secure telecommunications. “We probably have the most private conference room you’ll ever be in. You’re not likely to be interrupted.”
Chartered jets also make sense when a client absolutely, positively has to be somewhere fast. “A client might call and say, ‘I need to be in New York and American just cancelled; how quickly can you get me there?’” Schubach said. “I’ve turned airplanes out of here 30 minutes after hanging up the phone.”
Schubach agrees that charter air travel is expensive. “I’ve always disagreed strongly when the industry sometimes pretends this isn’t expensive,” he said. “One trade group went out and found the most expensive ticket on a commercial airline making stops in three cities, which is stupid, it’s disingenuous. While everybody is trying to be economical, nonetheless there is still a value to the time that you’ll be using unproductively.
“There’s a difference between inexpensive and economical. Plug in any three or four cities you want — try and go out and connect to them on United or Delta in a single day. If you have to make stops in more than two cities, it’s worth checking us out. It’s easy for us to do Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City and have our client home for dinner.”
Schubach came back from his Dallas trip on Southwest. “They turn planes in 20 minutes,” he said. “They run a better operation than the big legacy carriers.
“We don’t pretend to compete. If someone says I want to go to Oakland tomorrow with four guys, I’ll say ‘Take Southwest; it takes about an hour.’ But the Central Valley? It will take you all day to get there. Call us if you need to go to Concord, Calif., then Sacramento, then Bakersfield.”
Shubach Aviation is a charter management firm. Employing more than 40 professional pilots, including Schubach, the company takes a client’s million-dollar, non-performing asset, and makes it available to the public for charter.
“We provide a service to people who own aircraft and who don’t want to have pilots,” Schubach explained. “We save our clients money by leasing hangars and buying fuel in bulk; we sort of function like a big buying co-op. We generate income for the owner and take care of his plane.”
When the owner wants to go somewhere, Schubach supplies the pilot, fuel at a lower rate than the client could get on his own, breakfast and lunch on board, and arranges for a car rental. The car is there waiting for the client, right next to the airplane.
The Shubach fleet includes four turbo-props of different sizes, “They’re great for ski trips and can go in and out of shorter airports,” Schubach said. Then there’s a Beech King and seven Cessna Citation light jets in various sizes and models with different capabilities and load capabilities. Four Lear jets range from light to mid-size and there are six Hawkers, which Schubach describes as the best mid-size jets in the business. “They still have the original tube cabin design that was developed in the ’60s.” One Hawker will carry seven passengers; four are outfitted for eight and one for nine. The Hawkers all come from the Wichita factory with no interior, allowing buyers to customize the interiors. There’s also a Bombardier Challenger and a Gulfstream G-4, with a large cabin and intercontinental capability. All have restrooms.
In his formative years, Schubach took a ground school class in Salt Lake City and found it interesting. He went on to get a pilot’s license, and a few years later upgraded it to a commercial license. In the late ’80s, he quit a job and met a retired Strategic Air Command colonel who did contract flying. “He introduced me to our ambassador to Argentina who was looking for someone to fly his plane. So I set up a charter company with his aircraft in 1990 and bought the company in 1992 and then purchased a second airplane. Then the guy who was hangared next door to me asked, ‘If I bought a King Air could you keep it busy?’ ‘Yeah,’ I said and we kept it busy for seven years. My very first aircraft owner is still with us and now on his fifth airplane.”
There are 5,500 airports in this country and Schubach Aviation’s fleet can go to most of them. And while there are fewer developers and real estate clients these days, Schubach says there has been an increase in business executives turning to charter services for leisure travel. “If you’ve only got a four-or-five day vacation in Aspen, the last thing you want is a day on each end traveling there. You’ll be in and out of the airports in two hours or less with our service.”
Likewise, he says, Cabo San Lucas is 2 ½ hours away and there’s an airport in downtown Cabo rather than one that’s an hour away. There are two airports in Napa Valley, rather than Oakland or South San Francisco, and Sedona has an airport in the middle of town.
While acknowledging that charter air travel in general has been impacted by the slowdown in the economy, Schubach says his company hasn’t been affected to nearly the degree as others in the charter business. “We’re sort of unusual in the charter business because we’ve focused on our own customer base. We don’t do a lot of business for other operators, like limousine operators that sub-contract to other companies.”
That’s fine when times are good, said Schubach, but in a recession, those overflow referrals can grind to a halt. “These guys all thought they were geniuses; until things slowed down. Now they’re all gone.”
Schubach grew up in the retail business where his family owned an eyeglass store. “I used to go to work at 6 years old, cleaning sunglasses,” he said. “I’ve long held the belief that all business is retail – and I don’t think a lot of people realize this.
“We don’t treat people in the back cabin as passengers; these are customers who are spending a significant amount of money for a product that is very nice. It’s important how they will be spoken to, how catering is presented.”
“We have a full-time cabin service manager whose sole function is to make sure the product that is delivered to our customer is consistently high in quality – furnishings, catering menus, entertainment that includes DVDs, movies, music and headsets. We are constantly working with caterers and suppliers on the road. When we go to New York, we have a variety of caterers we go to.”
Schubach Aviation maintains an extensive database on each customer. “If we find that a customer really likes frozen Hershey bars, that goes in the database. The crews report back on each trip. We are constantly trying to improve.”
Shubach is starting to see the light at the end of the recessionary runway. “It’s starting to feel different, look different out there. But, then again, I started this business in 1992 – during a recession – and today the same rules apply. You have to provide not only exceptional value for the dollar but do even better than that. Provide the most for it.” z