Christophe de Margerie, chief executive of French oil giant Total, was killed Monday night when his private jet hit a snowplow while taking off in Moscow. News reports say the plow driver was drunk. Three crew members also died in the accident.
De Margerie was a colorful figure — his impressive mustache made him unmistakable at industry events — and fond remembrances poured in from both business and political leaders when news of the tragedy became public. He was remembered for being forthright and accessible, not common qualities in an industry where CEOs are often guarded by a phalanx of public-relations staffers.
De Margerie isn’t the first prominent executive to die aboard a private jet, though such incidents are rare. Earlier this year, Lewis Katz, the co-owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, died when his Gulfstream IV exploded on the runway outside of Boston. Others, such as Micron CEO Steve Appleton, have been killed while piloting their own planes. And of course, there’s a long list of celebrities, from former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens to singer John Denver, who have died in plane crashes. Most, though not all, have been aboard private aircraft.
That made me wonder whether corporate jets are riskier than commercial airliners. Big companies routinely pay for their top executives to fly private, and many actually require it, even for personal travel. The board of directors at Exxon Mobil, for example, “requires the Chairman and CEO to use Company aircraft for both business and personal travel,” according to the company’s latest proxy statement. (I couldn’t immediately determine whether Total has a similar policy.)
The National Transportation Safety Board collects data on aircraft safety in the United States. At first glance, it looks like it’s much safer to fly commercial: “General aviation” — the umbrella term for noncommercial flights — recorded 70 accidents and 12 fatal accidents per 1 million flight hours in 2012. Commercial airlines had just 1.5 accidents per 1 million hours, and no fatalities.
But general aviation is a broad category that lumps together professionally operated corporate jets like de Margerie’s and tiny two-seaters flown mostly by amateurs (some of these planes, such as Appleton’s and Denver’s, are homemade or have experimental designs). Personal planes are by far the most dangerous, with an accident rate of 120 per 1 million hours. Corporate jets, by contrast, rival commercial aircraft in terms of safety: They had 4.7 accidents and 0.8 fatal accidents per 1 million flight hours in 2012. Moreover, four of the 11 corporate accidents in 2012 involved helicopters, not planes.
In other words, corporate jets aren’t necessarily any safer than commercial flights, but they aren’t much more dangerous, either. As Slate noted in 2008, executives have other reasons for flying private. Companies, including Exxon, usually cite security, but private jets also offer other advantages: flexible schedules, privacy and a better environment for getting work done. Of course, they’re also a nice executive perk — one not all companies decide is worth the money. Microsoft, for one, is famously stingy on business travel: Bill Gates flew coach for much of his time as Microsoft’s chief executive, though he later bought his own plane.
De Margerie, 63, is survived by his wife and three children.