Even more remarkable than the fact that an empty back-up plane spent years following former GE CEO Jeff Immelt around the globe is that it apparently did so both autonomously and invisibly. Nobody knew: Jeff Immelt, in spite of being in the plane in front of the back-up plane, and perhaps seeing this eerily similar backup plane on every single tarmac he ever set foot on, didn’t know. The board didn’t know. The pilots following Immelt’s plane probably also didn’t know. Even after some guy saw the two CE planes parked in a place most unlikely to require two GE asked about them, nobody knew.
In September 2010, an anonymous Montana political blogger wrote that two GE jets flew into Butte, Mont., when Mr. Immelt came to an economic summit hosted by then-Sen. Max Baucus.
The blogger reported that airport staff said the second jet was an extra, empty plane. Former GE spokesman Peter O’Toole responded, according to the blog post, that the board required the CEO to use corporate jets for security reasons and that the claim of “some sort of ‘chase plane’ scenario is wrong.”
When asked by the Journal about the Montana incident this week, Mr. O’Toole, who left GE in 2010, said “our responses were based on the information available at the time.”
Which information, of course, was the fact hiding in plain site that not one but two GE airplanes were hanging around a town where exactly one GE CEO had gone to talk shop with a senator. The remarkable physical properties of that fact and of the whole crazy situation is further demonstrated by another fact, that after a few people found out about the chase plane and ordered it to cut it out, said chase plane still took to the skies following Immelt’s chem trails, presumably of its own volition.
At least, this is the story as it has evolved. Immelt’s successor as CEO, John Flannery, does not believe this story. He does not believe in autonomously-controlled planes surreptitiously following another plane without anybody ordering it to or noticing that it had. He does not believe that facts can be neurologically constructed so as to leave no trace upon their hearers. The ornery and now underpaid Flannery does, however, believe that the empty plane scenario sounds suspiciously like all of the other wasteful bullshit Immelt pulled during his 16 years at the helm, and goddamnit he wants to know who was in on it.
William “Mo” Cowan, GE’s vice president of litigation and legal policy, led an effort in recent weeks to find out who knew about the extra plane and when they knew it, one person said.
As it turns out, Flannery was right: There are no autonomous pet airplanes that automatically follow their beloved masters around the globe (yet), and there are people who knew. Lots of them. Some of whom are taking their leave of the place.
After the Journal earlier this year published two articles about the spare jet, Mr. Immelt sent a letter to GE’s lead independent director Jack Brennan, former head of mutual-fund giant Vanguard Group, saying the operation was overseen by the senior human-resources manager.
GE recently said the head of its human-resources department, Susan Peters, would retire at the end of the year. Her departure isn’t related to the spare jet or related review, a GE spokeswoman said, adding that Ms. Peters is retiring at the age of 65 “after 38 years of dedicated service.”
But it wasn’t just her!
Ms. Peters was part of an executive committee that in 2014 reviewed an internal complaint about the spare jet, according to people familiar with the matter. Other executives involved, they said, included Jeff Bornstein, who was replaced as finance chief on Nov. 1, and former general counsel Brackett Denniston III, who retired from the company in 2015.
The committee reviewed the complaint and recommended changes, including using locally chartered planes as backups instead of flying two GE-owned planes, one person said. The committee reported its findings to independent director Douglas “Sandy” Warner, at the time the head of the board’s audit committee, this person said.