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GA Isn't Always the Right Answer, But These Days It Looks Wrong Even When It's Right

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As our blog stream muses on the issue of the Detroit Big Three's use of corporate aircraft, I'm reminded of a short commercial flight I took couple of years ago. It was a flight from Portland, Maine to JFK in New York—I think it was on Jet Blue. Stowing my bag above seat 15A I looked at the guy already sitting is row 16 and thought he looked familiar. It wasn't until somewhere around Hartford that I realized the guy behind me was John Baldacci, the Governor of Maine.

After we parked at the gate and all stood in the coach-section half crouch waiting for the aisle ahead to clear, I turned to Gov. Baldacci and made stupid small talk, "So, the Blaine House doesn't come with a private jet?" (Maine has the highest taxes in the nation and they're clearly not spending the money to fix the potholes. The Blaine House is our gubernatorial mansion.)

"No, no plane," Baldacci said. "I prefer to fly commercial anyway. It makes more sense." The interest a rather large gentleman sitting across the aisle from the gov took in me made it clear Baldacci has a bodyguard riding along. The aisle cleared, and my brush with local royalty ended.

You gotta love the practical Yankee. And he was right. Traveling to New York, it's just so much cheaper and not that much less a pain to fly on a CRJ or Airbus. That's a problem for us in GA sometimes. We don't like to admit that, sometimes (maybe more than sometimes) it just doesn't make sense to fly it ourselves. Funny thing is that when it does make sense to use the airplane, it's not always obvious. I recently met a fellow named Marc who bought a used Cirrus SR20 for business use. He didn't even have his private license at the time. So is he a doctor or lawyer visiting clients? Perhaps a real estate agent scoping out vacation homes or the rich? Hardly.

He builds conveyor belts.

But take a little walk through the spreadsheet with me here. Marc has a crew of three to four guys including himself who travel all over New England. They have a truck with their equipment that they drive to the site. Now, if the job isn't too far, they drive back and forth each day. If the job is far from home, they stay all week—to the tune of $200/night per room in some locations during vacation season. They only come home on the weekends.

With the Cirrus, the crew drives the truck and Marc meets them at a nearby airport (this is New England where the sectional chart seems to have chicken pox there are so many uncontrolled airports around). They then shuttle back and forth for less money than it costs to house the crew for a night in a hotel. They rent a hangar for a month or so while they do the job. The airplane sits in the hangar all day and the truck stays secure in there all night. The crew is home every night unless the weather is too bad to fly. Turns out, it's rarely that bad for the relatively short flights involved. Marc is coming out ahead by flying even before trying to put a number on the value of coming home each night.

Take these two tales and you have the double-damned situation that GA is in right now. Most often, it doesn't make sense to fly yourself unless you squint up your eyes to slant the costs and do some mumbling about value of your time. Or you can just admit it doesn't pencil out cheaper but you just want to fly anyway. But even when flying does make sense—even if you have a situation like Marc—picture for a moment trying to sell this to your accountant/partners/spouse. "You want to buy an airplane now? What are smoking? Put away that spreadsheet and get in the car."

So, either way, new airplanes sales are flat now, despite the fact that if you ever wanted to buy an airplane—particularly a new airplane—you'll never get a better deal. This all boils down to perception and assumption. GA is perceived as an extravagant perk for the rich (see Paul's blog). And, truth be told, it often is an extravagant perk for the well off, if not wealthy. We don't do ourselves any favors by trying to defend this. Doing so not only dilutes our credibility, it steals the fire from examples where it really does make sense; like Marc's business, or traveling solo in a high-mpg LSA, or taking a family trip to odd locations on your own schedule; or owning an airplane for purely recreational purposes.

GA isn't always the right transportation answer, nor should we pretend that it is. In the current economy, I'd hope to see more realists than apologists. In the long run, we're better off for it.

Comments (14)

I agree with the general tone of this blog. I have owned a Cessna 182 for 23 years. In the begining I flew every at every opportunity because the joy of flying an airplane outweighed the cost. After awhile, it became apparent to me that sometimes it is more convenient to drive. At that time I started using the plane more intelligently. Now before committing to a flying trip, I look at convenience, cost, and time constraints (as well as weather) before making a decision to fly. Lest you think the flying bug has left me, I just completed a homebuilt single seat aircraft and fly it just for fun.

Posted by: John Errington | November 24, 2008 8:37 AM    Report this comment

As a Wisconsin based pilot who uses single-engine GA personally and for business I genuinely appreciate the unvarnished and often true comments within this article. I have flown as far as New York and New Orleans, and many locations in between, for business in the last 3 years. In each case it was more expensive and often slower, with all factors considered, than it would have been flying commercial.

I’d add that I highly value the independence and flexibility GA provides me, and the reduced anxiety wondering how long a business meeting may go, but I don’t think I could ever come near justifying GA ownership or use if cost where the only or primary factor.

I believe you have to love the intangibles of GA to rationalize it in any way.

Posted by: Dale Egan | November 24, 2008 9:06 AM    Report this comment

For years I’ve chuckled over people’s attempts to justify the financial costs of GA/corporate aviation, most of which seem to revolve around the supposed value of time. Mostly the rationalizations fell flat because they tried to warp the numbers to support this pre-selected justification.

Being retired, my GA travel is now strictly for personal reasons, but my justification is still the same as it always was: Its great fun, a LOT less hassle than flying commercial, and I’m able and willing to spend my personal money for that.

Include "ego" within the term "fun" and you have the true justification behind at least 75% of corporate aviation operations. Unfortunately the leaders of corporate America are spending someone else’s money on these little pleasures, making the justification especially rough to spin when you’re on a begging trip. Looks to me as if they should have spent the money on a personal PR consultant.

Posted by: John Wilson | November 24, 2008 11:09 AM    Report this comment

I fly privately and work on regional aircraft. I have also previously worked on smaller corporate jets and turboprops. I truly believe that corporate aviation allows a flexibility that commercial aviation cannot in terms of where one can land and also be free of many time constraints. The biggest argument that I have is that many corporate aircraft are far to regal/fancy than they need to be and often flights carry fewer passengers than the aircraft can accomodate. If corporations didn't let ego and vanity drive their aircraft purchases the whole industry might not be so negatively perceived. (although the executives salaries don't help either) There are the fractional operators who may be able to help change this by corporations utilizing a pool of aircraft that are not "owned" by them.

Posted by: Ernie Walker | November 24, 2008 11:44 AM    Report this comment

I agree with Ernie - I bet Congress would have looked at the Big 3 differently if they had arrived in a Cessna 414. I haven't checked for a while, but it could probably be chartered for about $3 a mile - or round trip with standby time for about $2500 - $3000. It would have taken about 2 hours to get from Detroit to Washington, and if they had four passengers, would be $700 to $800 per person - not that out of line from airline fares and lots faster. Pick the right aircraft for the job, and the costs are manageable.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | November 24, 2008 12:35 PM    Report this comment

Man i am so tired of everybody complaining about the excesses of the rich. If the company or the person can afford it, well that is fine to me.

Just my vent.

Posted by: David Peters | November 24, 2008 3:55 PM    Report this comment

Amen to David Peters. I've come to the conclusion, especially in the last couple of years, that the primary emotion that politicians exploit when they want to push an agenda is envy.

Posted by: Chris McLellan | November 24, 2008 4:41 PM    Report this comment

Chris and David, I'd agree up to the point where my taxpayer dollars go to pay for bad business decisions.

If economics dictates that CEOs have the power to command salaries that are 100s of times that of the average employee, I can wish things were different but that's the way it is.

But CEOs should not have the power to take home millions from the company coffers and then refill the coffers with my money. The company CAN'T afford it; that's the point.

Posted by: jack test | November 24, 2008 5:07 PM    Report this comment

I've flown for 27 years in my business and always flown a Mooney because of its efficiency. I've calculated the Jobs I would not have taken without my airplane and compared them to my earnings. Except for last few years year when the real estate markets collapsed, I've always earned more than the cost of the airplane ... usually a lot more... and I've been geographically diversified. that has saved me from more than one regional downturn. I've thoroughly enjoyed my flying and have found it to be my favorite time to escape from the rat race and ponder my future (or listen to music en-route!)

Since I'm based at Tahoe in the Sierras, a 25 minute flight can save me up to 5 hours of driving. Las Vegas is only 1:35 away and I can do a day trip to make deals or inspect work and be home for my own bed each night without being stressed out.

I'd like to think pilot businessmen are rational, that they make the same calculations I've made, and that they have a sound financial basis for using their airplanes.

Posted by: HENRY BUTLER | November 24, 2008 11:34 PM    Report this comment

GA isn't always the right answer. But for most pilots, there is a point at which the economics of the plane and the time saved (even in a 100-kt Warrior or 172) pay off. Door to door to my clients, I can beat the airlines, thanks to all the security grief. Going to the opposite coast, well, it makes more sense to ride the mailing tube.

I can beat the nation's fastest train to Washington from here by two hours, apart from the fact that the airport is eight to fifteen minutes from here by car and the train station a half hour by $70 limo (no parking). On the other hand, the train offers the benefit of being able to work at your seat, something not really practical on an airliner and impossible if you're piloting yourself. With a cellular aircard, I can read all my favourite AvWeb columnists when I get bored polishing my presentation.

And then, there's the city-pair where the airlines just don't go, or just don't go adequately. Try getting to Indianapolis or South Bend from Buffalo or Harrisburg and you'll get to know all the myriad joys of hub and spoke. And how else do you get to Pottstown, PA?

From where I live north of Boston, even New York is a toss-up. Into the city, best to drive or train, usually, but if I have to go to Long Island or Westchester or Orange County, I can do it best by plane.

Airnav.com and some phone calls in advance make sure I have ground transportation... sometimes it's free.

Posted by: KEVIN O'BRIEN | November 26, 2008 12:37 AM    Report this comment

While it is unfortunate that the CEOs chose to misuse their corporate jets, we shouldn’t be so quick to lump all general aviation flights into the same frivolous category. Your post is overlooking many important situations when general aviation is the only way to reach small towns and rural communities that otherwise would not have access to medical care, business tools and resources. These small aircraft are the only way these businesses can survive, and with more and more airlines cutting off service to rural areas theymay be the only way the travel needs of these communities can be met.

Posted by: Matt Hager | November 26, 2008 7:36 PM    Report this comment

Well, this is Alaska and distances and lack of a road system give everything here has a little different slant. I fly my 182 for business when I can and generally save a little money and even more time. To fly commercially between Anchorage and Fairbanks takes about 45 minutes (in the air). Add loading, check-in, TSA (thousands standing around), taxi, wait, go to the bagage carousel, leave the terminal etc. and the 45 minutes always escalates to something in excess of 2.5. I am a corporate trainer and when I "go" I have a computer, projector, training books and materials. How do you carry these kind of articles on a commercial jet? I arrive at the 182, preflight, fly the route and arrive on the ramp in just about 2.5 with all my materials. If the weather is too bad, obviously it doesn't work but generally is works just fine and if another of our people needs to be there too it's a real money saver. Love my Super-Skylane!

Posted by: Stuart Sibitzky | November 26, 2008 10:53 PM    Report this comment

I did run into a person who did have a good use for GA. He sold aviation equipment. He would leave his house at 6:00AM and arrive back home after 6:00PM. 12 hours on the road. Mostly in traffic. Using a Mooney Bravo (full de-ice), he was able to visit the same 3 customers and be home at 1:00PM leaving the rest of the afternoon to build the business.

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | November 28, 2008 4:17 PM    Report this comment

Why are you so timidly responding to the accusations of socialist politicians who acquire and maintain their power by demonizing the wealthy? Ever notice how they are free to use public funds to travel as they please? Maybe it’s time to stop “giving back” to those who never gave you anything and have instead enslaved you by stealing the fruits of your labor. Just remember 50% of the nation does not pay taxes they get “refunds” (Hint: they don’t get them from the refund fairy). So use your wonderful GA machines while you can and whenever you want. It won’t be too long before the carbon taxes and confiscatory income tax programs obviate the need for all that searing guilt you feel when you fly GA because you will no longer have the choice. If those two changes don’t stop you then the inflation resulting from spending $7,000,000,000,000.00 will limit your options a bit. It’s never too late to wake up and try to regain your freedom; however at this stage you will find that choice a much more costly and difficult decision than that of whether or not to fly GA.

Posted by: ANDREW STUPER | November 29, 2008 5:51 PM    Report this comment

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