General Aviation versus Commercial

It's Simply Faster...

Well boys and girls, it can be very hard to justify private aircraft as "efficient", but there is one way in which it's easily seen to be true. That dimension, as Rod Serling might say, is one of time. I got the idea after reading that a NASA study had determined that driving in a car is just as fast as flying commercially for distances of less than 500 miles. What a staggering conclusion! It was this analysis, by the way, that has led NASA to get involved with improving General Aviation. Their conclusion was that the commercial air travel system was pretty screwed up, and that further decentralization in the form of more and better General Aviation was the best cure. Hallelulah, brother!

I've constructed a chart that shows the "breakeven distance" for various private aircraft versus commercial airlines. This is the distance you must fly before the arrival times for the two aircraft are approximately the same. If you fly a shorter distance, you get there sooner via private plane. Even the lowly Cessna 182 can beat a commercial jet for short hops!

How can this be true, you ask?

It's straightforward when you are computing the door-to-door time for flying. In this case, I've used my own personal situation, which involves a 1 hour drive to any airport I may choose to fly out on since I live in Santa Cruz. Actually, my drive to SFO is longer, this is a drive to SJC. My drive to the Watsonville General Aviation airport is about 15 minutes by comparison. Secondly, there is all the time you spend at the airport parking, checking in, riding shuttle buses to the terminal, going through metal detectors, and generally waiting at the gate. While some seasoned travellers can probably do this pretty quickly, I've alloted 1 hour. That's actually the figure I use to make sure I get my family on a plane on time. By contrast, I allow 1/2 hour to preflight the private aircraft, load it, and taxi out. I think that's reasonable based on my experience flying.

So, the commercial jet is faster, but you lose on the time spent getting to the jet and on to your destination. While it may seem like private aircraft are slow sometimes, it's really interesting to look at the real time involved for the whole transaction. One caveat: for the really long distances, I have not computed a refueling stop for the private plane, which will start to even things up again. On the other hand, these days you often have to make a connection, with possible layover, so that private plane has a chance to catch up all over again.

I've also listed typical destinations that are within the given radius of the Watsonville area. It's amazing how close things are. Imagine, its faster to get to Santa Fe in Steve and Tim's Piper Navajo than to fly commercial. This is another interesting one where things come out in the private's favor because there are no non-stops to Santa Fe.

With the Piper Navajo, the radius of efficient (i.e. no worse than airline) operation includes Aspen and as far north or South.

With a faster pressurized prop you can start to reach Austin/Houston.

Turboprops can go to Chicago, New Orleans, or pretty well anyplace west of the Mississipi.

Pretty cool, huh? I can't promise you cheaper, but faster and more comfortable are definitely in the realm of possibility.

Here are the detailed numbers:

By the way, I ran an automobile travelling at 65 mph through the same spreadsheet model and concluded you get there faster by car if travelling less than about 200 miles. That's a much shorter distance than NASA found, but then my model is probably too optimistic about commercial airliners!

If the above didn't convince you, maybe this will. Houston airport gate waiting for our connecting flight to get home from Cozumel.

Lovely, no?

Love those FBO's

Besides time, there is another dimension that makes travel by private airplane so much more comfortable.

It's amazing what a good FBO can do to make your general aviation flying experience more pleasant. Anyone who travels a lot has grown to hate airports, unless they've done it the GA way with a good FBO. For you non-pilots out there, an FBO is a "fixed base operator". They're essentially gas stations for aircraft. Because pilots get to choose who they'll take their business to, and because airplanes consume much more expensive gas in larger quantities than cars, the better FBO's are extremely service oriented. For the most part, they are trying to woo corporate jet pilots into bringing their lucrative business in to them. It's amazing what the better outfits will do in the way of sucking up, Pretty Woman style!

Imagine a combination Admiral's Club, Five Star Hotel Concierge, and Personal Travel Agent and you are starting to get the picture. Let me share a little story about a local FBO that did us proud. One day some friends and I decided we wanted to get a $100 Hamburger. Non-pilots, click that link to see what this is all about and then come back to finish the story. Anyway, we were flying from Reid-Hillview to Monterey in Northern California in a friend's Cessna 172. I had gotten a wild hair about wanting to go to Tarpy's Roadhouse, which is a kind of upscale Southwestern grill near the MRY airport. My thought was that we'd take t taxi to get to the restaraunt, but my pilot friend assured me there was a better way.

We flew into MRY and then taxied to Millionair, which is one of the more upscale FBO's you can find across the country. This particular one does a great business refueling big corporate jets just before they cross the ocean to go to Hawaii, so it is particularly deluxe. Even though we were flying in a lowly Cessna 172, my friend had called ahead and they (literally) rolled out the red carpet. A guy met us with the light wands to guide us into our parking spot. A little red carpet was rolled up to our door. We walked into the main office which resembled a Spanish-style mansion more than the usual airport structures. We were warmly greeted at the reception desk and offered a fresh-baked brownie. My friend casually asked if we could borrow the crew car, and the attendant tossed us the keys. "It's the white Jaguar," she said, without missing a beat. Whoa! Jaguar?!?? Now this is what I'm talking about!

The Millionair Jaguar and the Boyz

This was my first experience with crew cars, and boy was it special. For those not in the know, lots of FBOs keep a car around that they call the "Crew Car". It's not intended for passengers, but rather for the pilots to use, because they're the ones that choose the FBO and hence need the sucking up to. We had a blast that afternoon. It was a 2-hour lunch, but I'll cherish the memory for the rest of my life. It just doesn't get much better than this, and you don't even have to fly a Learjet to have the Learjet experience!

FBO's will perform a host of services for you. We've had them meet us with rental cars, for example. Isn't it great not to have to stand in line? They can recommend hotels and restaraunts in town. They often have goodies on hand to provide a quick snack, and comfortable lobby areas to wait for the next thing to happen. Treat them well, tip them, and seek the best possible FBO. It'll make all the difference in your travels. Needless to say, if there is a Millionair at an airport I'm visiting, I'll go out of my way to do business with them now.

All material 2001-2006, Robert W. Warfield.