Corporate Jets: Luxury Or Necessity?

Private jets flown by CEOs have become symbols of excess. But for many, these small planes are vital to their businesses and their rural communities, as CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann reports.

These days, the use of corporate planes by business executives is cause for public scorn.

"It's almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in high hat and tuxedo," said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y.

The winds shifted last November when the CEOs of Detroit's Big Three automakers flew hat-in-hand to Washington to request government bailouts - arriving on fancy company jets.

Many Americans saw a new symbol of greed and arrogance.

"'This time CEOs won't be able to use taxpayer money to pad their pay checks or buy fancy drapes or disappear on a private jet. Those days are over," President Barack Obama said on Feb. 24.

Orders for new planes nosedived and aircraft manufacturers slashed jobs. Cessna cut 40 percent of its workforce - 7,400 jobs; Hawker Beechcraft cut 2,800 jobs, Gulfstream 1,200.

Citigroup cancelled its new $50 million dollar jet. Others companies sold their fleets.

But Wes Stowers is no fat cat. And his company plane, a King Air 350, is no ego trip. He also owns a private jet.

"It's comfortable and functional. But not exactly luxurious," said Stowers, chairman of Stowers Machinery Corporation.

Stowers' Knoxville, Tenn. Caterpillar dealership has been his family's business for almost 50 years.

On his company plane, Stowers flies customers to caterpillar factories, in remote places commercial carriers don't fly.

In fact only 500 American cities are served by the major airlines, whereas private planes can access 5,000 smaller airports across the country.

So the mayors of 70 small and medium-sized cities have written to President Obama urging him to help change "toxic perceptions" about this "crucial lifeline to rural America."

They urge the president to save the industry's 1.2 million jobs, and the $150 billion output per year.

Fat cat CEOs are the stereotype, but 85 percent of people flying on private planes for business work for small or mid-sized companies.

If having a private plane was just a fun perk, "We would get rid of it," Stowers said.

But the ridicule goes on and this industry continues to have a bumpy forecast.