Detroit CEOs take road less traveled to Washington

NEW YORK Wed Dec 3, 2008 6:23am EST

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Chastised by Congress and lampooned by comedians for flying private jets to Washington while asking for taxpayer money, the chief executives of U.S. automakers have learned a lesson: drive, don't fly.

As the CEOs of General Motors Corp, Ford Motor Co and Chrysler LLC head back to Washington with hat in hand, they are driving -- or being driven -- the 520-mile (837-kms) route.

But one car isn't enough if you're a titan of the auto industry. So they are bringing several.

Ford's Chief Executive Alan Mulally was on his way to the nation's capital on Tuesday afternoon, in a Ford Escape hybrid. A spokesman declined to say if the 10-hour trip would include an overnight stop.

A GM spokesman said CEO Rick Wagoner would also travel to Washington by car: a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu hybrid.

Based on average gas prices of about $1.80 a gallon and fuel efficiency of about 27 miles per gallon, the cost of the round trip would be about $70 in gas. Tolls are extra.

By comparison a round-trip, business-class ticket from Detroit to Washington is roughly $1,400. Coach airfares run about $300.

The cost of operating the private jet fleets was difficult to estimate. NetJets Inc, owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, sells fractional ownership shares of private planes for a minimum of $406,250. Through Marquis Jet, it is possible to purchase 25-hour increments of time in NetJet planes. Prices start at $115,900 or roughly $4,600 an hour.

U.S. auto executives have to be in Washington for a second round of hearings over a bailout the industry says it needs to survive. The companies submitted plans demanded by Congress to show how they could make the companies "viable."

Under fire for fighting fuel efficiency standards, offering too many brands and generous pay packages, the automakers presented plans that addressed those concerns.

Collectively, the three automakers are seeking $34 billion in aid.

GM warned it needs the money before month's end or it faces the risk of immediate failure. Chrysler is seeking an emergency $7 billion bridge loan.

The auto executives' private-jet trips to the Capitol became fodder for late-night television comedians.

In one skit, a comedian pretended to be GM's Wagoner and said, "As many of you know, instead of flying, the three of us decided to...drive." The comment was met with roaring laughter from the audience. "But we had car trouble."

The show aired before the executives decided to take their fleet of cars to Washington this time.

After their CEOs first appearances before Congress, GM and Ford said they would sell some, but not all, of their corporate jets.

To showcase its "green" vehicles, GM will drive several other fuel-efficient cars to DC. The entourage is expected to include a Buick Lucerne that can run on 85-percent ethanol and a Chevrolet Cobalt hybrid.

Ford also has more than one car driving to Washington. A spokesman declined to say exactly how many were going to the Capitol, but noted they were all hybrid vehicles.

"Part of this is being done to showcase fuel-efficient and environment-friendly vehicles," GM spokesman Tom Wilkinson said. "We have been running into a bit of a perception gap in Washington DC...and this is to close that perception gap."

Of course, it would have been more environmentally friendly to carpool.

(Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)

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