Some banking companies, already under fire for having their own private aircraft, are seeking ways to scale back their partial ownership of other jets.
The partially owned jets often supplement the in-house fleets that have drawn scrutiny from politicians, shareholders and consumer advocacy groups, particularly when the institution has accepted federal funds as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
Fractional ownership ostensibly saves bankers money over a fully owned fleet, but such flights still cost more than tickets on comparable commercial flights, even those bought on short notice, when prices are usually at their highest.
Greg D. Carmichael, the chief operating officer at Fifth Third Bancorp, said every executive at the $119.8 billion-asset Cincinnati company, including Kevin Kabat, its chairman and chief executive, switched to commercial flights this year, even though it has fractional stakes in two planes.
"Certainly economic conditions have changed since we entered into those contracts and we are mindful and respectful of current conditions," Carmichael said. "We will continue to fly commercial whenever and wherever possible."
Fifth Third's stance is understandable, since the use of corporate jets has become a lightning rod for the banking industry's critics, though perhaps less of one of late. Kenneth D. Lewis, Bank of America Corp.'s chairman and CEO, drew fire when he was filmed exiting a private jet in New York. Citigroup Inc. was criticized when it emerged that the company was planning to buy a new jet, and JPMorgan Chase & Co. was criticized over reports it would spend about $120 million to replace two of its four Gulfstream jets.
Foreign banking companies also are biting the bullet. Last year Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC abandoned plans to buy a $45 million private jet it would have used to ferry executives, including Sir Fred Goodwin, its former CEO.
B of A plans to reduce the use of its fractional jet program by 58% this year, to 500 hours of flight time. Scott Silvestri, a spokesman for the $2.5 trillion-asset company, said it still views the program as a way to provide "a consistent level of aircraft quality, reliability and safety standards."
A U.S. Bancorp spokesman said the $265.9 billion-asset Minneapolis company is "doing everything we can to cut back on travel." For example, it is reducing the use of the jet it partially owns to "almost nonexistent" levels limited to one-way trips. "We've greatly curtailed our relationship with fractional ownership."
A spokeswoman for Capital One Financial Corp. said the $165.9 billion-asset McLean, Va., company takes "a disciplined approach to cost management," including controlling travel-related expenses. She would not detail Capital One's plans for its fractional stakes.
Along with backing away from fractional ownership, bankers are culling the fleets of planes they own outright. B of A plans to continue ownership of five corporate aircraft but will sell three such planes and a helicopter that belonged to Merrill Lynch & Co., which it bought Jan. 1.
Citi is looking to unload three of its five corporate jets. A spokeswoman for Wells Fargo & Co., whose fleet swelled from one jet to eight after the Wachovia Corp. purchase, said the San Francisco company is selling at least five planes.
Morgan Stanley, which has two planes registered with the Federal Aviation Administration, did not return calls for comment. The U.S. Bancorp spokesman said it has one corporate jet. Officials at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Capital One and Fifth Third said they have no corporate jets.
The costs of fractional ownership vary according to the type of jet and the stake held. Bailey & Partners, a Santa Monica, Calif., law firm that handles aircraft litigation, estimates that companies pay $3 million for a one-eighth stake in a plane, which would include management fees, hourly use fees, insurance and finance costs over a five-year period.
Observers say fractional owners typically hold stakes ranging from a sixteenth to three-eighths, or $1.5 million to $9 million per plane. That may not include fueling costs, which can range from $10,000 to $30,000 a flight, observers said.
None of the banking companies would discuss specific costs associated with fractional ownership.
Bankers are not the only ones abandoning fractional ownership. The number of U.S. companies using the programs fell 2.8% between the end of last year and February, to about 5,000, according to JetNet LLC. Those companies shared the use of about 1,100 airplanes.
Lauren Sokalski, the marketing manager for the Cleveland aircraft provider Flight Options LLC, said clients are becoming less willing to lock into long-term programs.The company has countered by offering a reloadable card that lets customers pay for hours, rather than a plane.
"Nobody wants a contract at this time," she said. "We're sure charter use is also seeing an increase."
Yet many bankers are locked into lengthy contracts, leaving companies such as B of A, U.S. Bancorp and Fifth Third to cut back on trips to reduce travel costs.
Though they could ditch their fractional ownership programs when they expire, Carmichael said it might make sense to retain them; Fifth Third has always found it helpful to have a plane in place in case executives need to fly on short notice.
Annual evaluations of travel options have shown that the fractional program "gave us better control, guaranteed access, and was less expensive than charters," he said. "We are currently evaluating our travel program and will make a determination in the coming months as to any possible changes."