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