General Aviation Really Is a Better Way to Travel

General Aviation Really Is a Better Way to Travel by Peter Cassidy
A Consumer Perspective
AirPlay Third Quarter 2011

Changes in the airline industry have been a mix of good and bad news for consumers. While fares have dropped considerably making air travel more affordable, the customer experience has suffered. Planes are more crowded, there are more baggage restrictions, and security procedures have become an ongoing source of inconvenience. Gone are the days when the trip by air was a treat in itself. While this airline transformation has been taking place, travel by private (general aviation) aircraft has increasingly become a better way to travel. For the same cost, you can travel on your schedule, have no baggage restrictions, avoid the security hassles, and enjoy some great scenery.

There are many reasons to own an aircraft. For Gwen and I, it’s to go places more easily. We’re on our third plane over a span of 45 years. We started with a 1966 Musketeer Sport III. While not very fast, it was great for a young family of four, and served us well for 10 years and over 900 hours. For the past 11 years,  we've been flying an A36 Bonanza. It's provides superb family transportation and is our preferred means of travel for good, practical reasons.

Gwen's perspective on flying is quite different than mine. For her, the destination is the reason and flying is simply a means to that end. Just because we own an airplane doesn't mean we use it for every trip. She watches for airline specials and knows when they are too good to pass up. She has no desire to learn to fly. She's happy sitting in the right seat running checklists, tuning radios, and entering flight plans. She's taken pitch hitter courses to prepare her in the event of an emergency, but that’s the extent of her interest in private flying other than as a means of getting to a distant destination.

The Economics Work for General Aviation
Since our plane is a personal asset, we view the economics in a way that fits with our household budget process the same way we view our automobile costs. We treat fixed costs like maintenance, insurance, hangar rent, and annual inspection as a regular expenses. We’re going to pay these items whether we fly or not . Variable costs like fuel and airport fees, are what we focus on when planning a trip.

The Bonanza works well for trips up to 1000 miles (6-7 hours). We don’t always take the Bonanza, but we do better than you might expect. When the airlines are running a super special, it’s no contest. But taking advantage of the really good deals is not always easy. More typical was a trip we made recently from Nashville to Boulder, Colorado. The best airline fare we could find for the two of us to Denver and back was $869. While it's not a super saver, it's still a good price. Fuel for the Bonanza however, would be only 10 percent more, about $960, and we haven't taken into consideration the cost of getting to the Nashville airport and parking the car. When we weigh non-financial considerations, the Bonanza is a clear winner. For two or more on a trip, the cost generally favors taking the Bonanza.

Factors Other than Cost are Important
Baggage considerations are a major benefit for us with the Bonanza. When it’s just Gwen and I, our baggage rule is simple; if it will fit in the car, we can take it. We don't need to be concerned about how well things are packed (presents can be wrapped at home and the bows won't get crushed), and our bags always arrive when we do. If we buy something on the road, it needs no special packing for the trip home. Taking flexibility to the extreme, Gwen likes to take her homemade lasagna when we visit our kids. When we're set to leave, she takes one out of the freezer and wraps it in a large bath towel for the trip. You can't do that on the airline.

Getting through security to the plane is as easy on the general aviation side of the airport as it is difficult on the airline side. We have no baggage or carry-on restrictions. If we have a lot of stuff, we'll drive the car right to the plane.

While the airlines fly three times as fast as we do, unless it’s a direct flight, trip time is about the same with the Bonanza. For example, Nashville and Denver are both major hubs so the airlines have direct flights. However, to get the better fares we usually end up with a connection. In that case we’ll arrive in the Bonanza within an hour of the airline—and we're at the Boulder Airport, 3 miles from our final destination rather than  45 miles away at Denver International .

Schedule reliability is about even. We have the flexibility to leave when we want. On the other hand, we’re more subject to the weather. The airlines, on the other hand, regularly experience delays, missed connections, and cancellations. Overall we do pretty well with the Bonanza. We seldom have to adjust our plans more than a few hours due to weather and almost never more than a day. The approach we’ve adopted is to build an extra day into our schedule in case we need it for weather.

While airline travel is pretty much pure utility, traveling in a small plane is more likely to be an enjoyable experience. The Bonanza cabin is comfortable, there's plenty of leg room, it's warm in the winter and air conditioned cool in the summer. There are few flights where we are in or above the clouds for long stretches. Surveying the features of the landscape as you cruise along can be interesting. Lately we've marveled at the number of large wind turbine farms dotting the landscape. To answer the "where are we" question, I share my iPad with passengers. They enjoy following along on the moving map, zooming in and out and panning around our route.

In the Bonanza, we do better than today's airline food. We pack a lunch of sandwiches, fruit, and home-made ginger cookies. Nothing crumbly so as not to leave bits of food in the plane that would attract critters. We carry bottled water for drinks (no sticky mess to clean up if it spills) and a large can of Scotch mints.

Finding a suitable airport is never a problem. There are plenty of good ones to choose from, often very close to our final destination. We prefer towered airports with major FBOs that are open 24x7. Gwen likes the safety of towered airports and I like the ease of getting a clearance through the tower. Fuel and services cost more, but it's usually worth it. In addition to fueling and parking the plane, the FBO staff will find you a decent hotel at a good rate and arrange transportation. If you need a rental car, it's right there ready to go. Washrooms are clean and the lounge is relaxing with fresh coffee and warm cookies. At the other extreme, I once picked an airport because the fuel was cheap. We arrived on Sunday. The fuel was self-serve, which was fine, but the FBO was closed on Sundays and there was nothing stirring on the airport that day....and she needed a restroom. Cheaper is not always better.

Flying Yourself is a Smart Choice
We're not against airline travel. We try to be objective and choose the means that works best in each situation carefully considering cost and other considerations. Sometimes we leave the Bonanza in the hangar and go commercial. In most cases however, we fly ourselves because it's better transportation than the airlines can provide.