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Private Planes Can Be Ultimate Status Symbol

Widespread outrage over what is perceived as unchecked greed by top U.S. financial and corporate executives first bubbled up in November. That's when it was revealed that the chief executives of the three big U.S. automakers, appearing before Congress in search of multi-billion-dollar government loans, had flown to the hearings in their private jets.

In response to the fiery indignation that followed, the men were careful to leave their jets at home when they returned for another hearing. In fact, the executives at Ford and General Motors announced that their companies would sell their private jets.

And corporate executives elsewhere are giving up their private planes as well - some because of the considerable operating cost. But others are losing their airplanes involuntarily when they simply cannot keep up the payments.

Just as with automobiles on which money is owed and not paid, so-called "repo men" sometimes have to be sent to find and seize the planes. Repo is short for repossession by the legal owner - usually a bank.

There are specialists - airplane repo men - who do this job. They are usually a far cry from grungy auto repo men like Otto, a frustrated punk rocker repo specialist in the 1984 movie Repo Man, who sneak up to a car in the middle of the night, pick the lock or break in, jump the engine, and drive away while the unsuspecting owner is asleep.

Aircraft repo men like Ken Hill, who was recently profiled in the New York Times, are themselves pilots. He doesn't slink around in the dead of night. Once he locates a plane - and that can be the hardest part - he flies in, confronts the owner, and gives him or her a last chance to make good on payments owed. That is, after having first locked the propeller so that the plane cannot be flown. If the person cannot or will not pay, Hill opens the lock using a large set of keys that he carries, climbs in and flies it away.

Ken Hill's only serious confrontation, he told the Times, was an encounter with an unhappy woman whose plane he was repossessing. He recalls, "She chased me through a hangar with a garden rake."

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.