While US boards have curtailed company-paid perks such as hunting lodges and golf club memberships, CEOs are cranking up personal use of corporate jets.
The boards defend the perk as a tool to guarantee security and reduce wear and tear on globe-trotting executives. The result: non-business travel expenses rose for the third straight year in 2013, proxy filings show. Gone is the outrage at CEOs flying in high style that peaked during the recession.
"If your CEO is on vacation and you need him or her to come back quickly, you'd much rather have them be able to hop on a plane and fly back for a meeting as opposed to them waiting to catch the next commercial flight," said Aaron Boyd, director of governance research for Equilar, a Redwood City, California-based company that compiles data on executive pay.
General Electric chief executive officer Jeffrey Immelt racked up US$343,121 ($395,916) in personal use of the corporate plane last year, and the tally for JPMorgan Chase & Co's Jamie Dimon doubled. Meanwhile, billionaire Larry Ellison leased his own aircraft to the company he runs for $1.5 million.
Spending on jet travel rose 61 per cent last year among the 10 biggest Standard & Poor's 500 Index firms that reported such data, and 3.1 per cent for the top 50, according to proxy filings.
Companies such as Boeing and Halliburton mandate the use of corporate jets for leisure trips. And flying enthusiasts such as Ellison, the 69-year-old founder of Oracle, and Google's Eric Schmidt are taking it to the next level by renting their own jets to the company.
Oracle paid Wing and a Prayer Inc., operator of Ellison's aircraft, a total of US$4.3 million over three years. At Google, Schmidt was reimbursed US$1.4 million as executives, including the CEO himself, flew on his private aircraft in 2013. Schmidt, a billionaire, doesn't profit from the deal, the company said.
Wynn Travels Steve Wynn, the billionaire founder of Wynn Resorts, had one of the biggest bills for personal trips in 2013 - US$927,829. This year, the 72-year-old CEO will have to reimburse for "certain expenses" of such trips on the corporate jet, according to the casino company's proxy filing.
Wynn also lost a villa perk and was asked to pay an annual rent of US$525,000 for the house he uses as personal residence at Wynn Las Vegas.
At the other end of the spectrum: Warren Buffett, 83, who reimburses Berkshire Hathaway down to postage stamps and phone calls that are personal. The chairman and CEO uses company-owned aircraft exclusively for business purposes. For personal trips, Buffett flies like a regular manager and gives some money back to his Omaha, Nebraska-based company.
He has fractional ownership at NetJets, a Berkshire Hathaway unit, and pays standard rates, the proxy filing shows.
Personal use of corporate jets is making a comeback after some corporations took the perk away five years ago following the financial crisis. The outrage peaked when auto chiefs including Ford Motor's Alan Mulally and Rick Wagoner, then at General Motors, flew on company jets to plead with Congress for bailout money.
The stock market gains of the past two years - the S&P 500 has jumped 34 per cent - helped diffuse criticism over some perks, paving the way for more travel on the corporate jet, said David Schmidt, a senior consultant at executive compensation firm James F. Reda & Associates in New York.
"If the company is performing poorly, it's a red flag and people are going to be upset," Schmidt said. "If the company is performing wonderfully, who cares."
Personal use of the corporate jet at Fortune 100 companies plummeted 35 per cent to a median of US$92,421 in 2010 from 2008. The average climbed back to US$116,292 in 2012, according to Equilar, which hasn't yet compiled the data for last year.
Companies are required to report any use of US$25,000 or more. For the 50 largest S&P 500 companies that reported data, the average rose to US$284,682 in 2013 from US$276,014 in 2012, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. For the 10 largest, the average jumped to US$259,643 last year.
While Dimon's use doubled to US$125,973, it's below average. The New York bank uses an independent source to calculate the amount of personal use attributed to Dimon that includes fuel, lubricants, landing fees, crew expanse and even catering, according to its proxy filing. Joseph Evangelisti, a JPMorgan spokesman, declined to comment.
The boards of GE and Wynn Resorts, as at Boeing, require their CEOs to use the corporate plane for all travel. Seth Martin, a spokesman for Fairfield, Connecticut-based GE, declined to comment. Michael Weaver, a Wynn spokesman, also didn't comment.
Oracle pays "at or below market rate" for Ellison's aircraft and pilots, according to its proxy. Deborah Hellinger, a spokeswoman for Oracle, declined to comment.
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