As PR gaffes go, it was a pretty large one. Top executives from GM, Ford and Chrysler did themselves no favours last week by going cap in hand to Washington for financial help – and arriving in private ‘planes.

It was a point quickly picked up by the Financial Services Committee during a four and a half hour bailout hearing which chastised the bosses for the symbolism of arriving in Washington aboard executive jets.

They suggest that the executives may have to tighten their own belts. News reports estimate that each executive’s flight US$20,000 round-trip against about US$900 for first-class tickets. CEO Rick Wagoner reportedly traveled on GM’s US$36m Gulfstream IV luxury jet.

After being grilled by Congress and lampooned on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” the CEOs of Detroit’s three automakers may end up making their return trip to Washington by car as they seek a federal bailout. Some Detroit area activists are even trying to get a giant car caravan going.

Supplier industry representatives are playing a part. Dura Automotive Systems President and CEO Tim Leuliette has said that during the weekend they contacted the automakers, suppliers, dealership groups and the United Auto Workers and the movement began building.

The Detroit 3 are now working on a plan to present to Washington lawmakers in early December.

Even president-elect Barack Obama, considered sympathetic to Detroit’s plight, has voiced surprise that the CEOs didn’t show up with a plan of some sort last week.

NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” included a sketch about the next round of hearings and showed GM’s Wagoner presenting a schedule of billions in government payments without an accompanying business plan to justify the money