Airline Travel as GA's Savior

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A staple of the aviation magazine business used to be stories about how a general aviation airplane could be used to fly faster and cheaper than the airlines. The evergreen headline was, “We Beat the Airlines.” Right. You don’t see those stories much anymore and I needn’t explain why.

But could they come back? Could those heady days of yesteryear, where a 10-gallon-an-hour Mooney could occasionally outdo a Boeing or an Embraer on certain routes return? Not a chance, but permit a few pixels of delusional fantasizing. If the trend of owners deserting their airplanes for cheap airline tickets suddenly slows and reverses itself, it won’t be because fuel got cheaper or airplanes became more affordable. It will be because the airlines finally drive enough of their customers bat&%$ crazy that they’ll pay about anything to avoid that Delta flight between Atlanta and Dallas.

My rule of thumb used to be thirds. If I could do the trip on the airline for a third of the cost in the GA airplane, I could justify it by making a few stops along the way or departing and arriving on my own schedule. I never considered the airline torture factor because there was no torture factor. But lately, thanks to unbundled pricing, higher load factors, seat pitch that challenges the limits of human tolerance and diminishing route choices, all there is the torture. The typical airline trip—and I take a lot of them—has become an exercise in what the hell are they going to do to me next?

I was in Texas two weeks ago and discovered that American Airlines—which already has about 15 boarding classes--has now invented another one which, like all the others, is intended to squeeze money out of us poor bastards who are engaged in the warfare of modern travel: the endless struggle for a tiny slice of space in the overhead compartments.

I forget what they called it, but anyone who has no carry-on bags boards ahead of what is usually Zone 1, Zone 1 now being allowed onto the airplane about 30 seconds before the cabin door shuts. It’s pretty clever, really. They want to nick you for the $25 for the baggage fee and they’re willing to punish you to get it. But as I was running the math in my head, I figured that these people don’t have much baggage anyway, so they’re less likely to hog the overhead, displacing my modest roll aboard to the baggage bay. Since I don’t care when I get on as long as there’s room for the bag, I didn’t take the bait. This time. (It’s not a question of money, but security. My bag is loaded with small but expensive video gear.)

Time reports this week that all of this is about to get worse. Maybe much worse. The airlines are rapidly shaving capacity and dumping routes, with the predictable impact on fares. As I’ve said before, that’s fine with me. Flying seats around at below cost, long a habit of U.S. carriers, got us to where we are today. The larger market trend might be toward the extremes: full service luxury seats at $3500 from New York to Los Angeles at one end of the spectrum, $400 for a no-frills bench on the same route where water costs $5 and they charge you to use the lav. (Don’t laugh; could happen.) It also means paying extra for an aisle seat, more for a window seat, space in the overhead and to carry on anything that won’t fit in your pocket. And maybe not even that.

This allows the airline to offer, in Delta’s words, “a customized and differentiated experience.” That’s MBAspeak for we’re going to keep torturing you until you pay as much as we can get out of you.

New aircraft will probably makes things worse yet. Boeing is configuring the 787 with eight or nine abreast, meaning more middle seats and fewer aisles and windows. Some airlines are even considering making the center seats narrower, just to pressure passengers yet more to cough up money for an upgrade that really should be just a civilized seat. But this is what you get when an unregulated market buys purely on price, not value.

So in my fantasy world, airline travel becomes so unpleasant for enough people that a couple of things might happen. One is that organized, affordable on-demand charter gains a toe-hold. Remember DayJet and Eclipse? Maybe the timing was just wrong. Maybe that market was on the verge of gelling but only needed the push of truly intolerable airline service to become a reality. Also, recall that a couple of operations tried regional taxis with piston aircraft, including Cirrus and Diamond models.

The other thing is that damn the cost, owners get back into their GA airplanes for at least some of their travel. Although I don’t see the economics changing much, if not worsening, at least you could get on the airplane when you could board when you please and enjoy a seat with a good view, leg room and rudder pedals. What a concept.

I know, I know. Never happen. But hoping that it does at least has entertainment value.

Join the conversation.  Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (14)

"I think you said if the airline was $1,000 and you variable costs were less than $333 you would fly yourself?"

Other way around. If the airplane cost $1000 and the airline ticket was $333, I'd take the airplane, justifying it with multiple stops or other factors. But now, on the routes I was typically flying, the cost Delta is more like four or even five to one, sometimes. Hard to make it work.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | September 9, 2013 6:42 AM    Report this comment


I am with you here. GA is dying. Cost, hassle, and competition from alternative activities all conspiring to wring the life out of GA. BTW, GA is unique but not alone, but we'll leave that discussion for another day.

As to travel, I am an airline pilot, and I can barely tolerate the flying experience. I am continually amazed at what the flying public will tolerate. As you note, the fat cats have already abandoned the airlines for alternative airplanes (charter/shares/ownership). Cars have replaced the airlines on most trips under 400 miles for the average american.

For me personally, the TSA experience is the bridge too far. I will fly my own airplane (and beat the airlines in many cases) at great expense to avoid the hassle and indignities. I can fly for almost nothing on the airlines, and even then, I would prefer to fly myself, in my airplane, and I am not a "rich airline pilot". I'll eat the cost and justify it in all the normal ways (schedule/time/convenience/hassle).

One caveat though, security, even at small GA airports, remains an open question. TSA and local aviation authorities are bringing the absurdities of the airline terminals to GA fields. At my local airport, if it gets any harder to access my privately owned airplane, I may hang up my wings as well.

Jeff D

Posted by: JEFFERY DARNALL | September 9, 2013 7:19 AM    Report this comment

Paul, you are spot-on here. If airline travel gets any worse we all will have to abandon it for horses or whatever else. As for the tortuous seat pitch, I've had about enough. With my 6-3 frame I literally have to sit at a heading 30 degrees off the ship's heading just so my femur (leg bone) will fit between my seat and the back of the next one.

I once heard an airline rep say that the airline business is not about flying airplanes, it's about serving people's need to travel. They sure as hell are doing a crappy job of it.

Posted by: A Richie | September 9, 2013 8:29 AM    Report this comment

I would do almost anything to avoid flying the airlines anymore. In fact, my wife and I can now charter a Cessna (I am not a pilot) to fly us from Wichita to Bentonville, Ark for less money than economy seats on the airlines. The airline connection through Dallas would total almost 6 hours round trip including security clearance; the Cessna gets us there in just over an hour, or about 2.5 hours round trip.

We're using piston charter more and more for regional travel of 300 miles or less. Pity we can't justify turboprop or jet travel for cross-country trips for just the two of us, or we'd be doing it and never look back at the airlines again.

Posted by: Greg Leischner | September 9, 2013 8:31 AM    Report this comment

The hassle factor has been the rationalization of my GA trips for a while now, and we too go out of our way to do things via GA that would be impossible via the airlines (multi-stop trips, visits to wonderful, out-of-the-way corners of America, site-seeing). How do I pay for this? I don't drive a high-end car, preferring a seven-year-old minivan and lots of fun experiences with friends and family.

Not everyone feels the same way, or has the means to do so, but this is one of the luxuries I afford myself. And it sure beats the airline experience.

Posted by: Brad Koehn | September 9, 2013 9:14 AM    Report this comment

Paul, Your article reminds me of what Gordon Bethune, past CEO of Continental Airlines, said in reference to cost-cutting efforts in the airline industry many moons ago -- "It's possible to make a pizza so cheap that no one would want to eat it!" The airlines of today are closing in on that goal as the MBAs, most of whom resemble the north end of a southbound horse, gain influence in airline operations. About the only things going up these days are management salaries/bonuses, fees for everything and customer dissatisfaction not to mention intrusive TSA staff and baggage handlers who steal your stuff!

Airline deregulation was sold as a good thing, but it has morphed into a nightmare for the traveling public and it will be impossible to put the Genie back into the bottle. The only solution is to seek out alternatives and deprive the MBAs of their winnings.

Posted by: Keith Bumsted | September 9, 2013 9:21 AM    Report this comment

You don't have to fantasize. You are pretty much spot on as to the reason I got my PPL a couple of years ago. While I had always had an interest in flying, the airline experience got me to take it seriously and a chat with an old friend who had become a pilot since I last saw him pushed me over the edge.

My in-laws live in the 300-400nm ring (380-500sm driving) and when you account for time through check-in, security, boarding and the additional ground travel to/from the airline terminals vs. the GA airports then even a lowly Skyhawk beats Southwest by a few minutes. Even with an expensive FBO rental the price is roughly the same for 4 seats. It's cheaper on the 737 with a loss-leader fare but more expensive if you don't wait for a sale or you want a decent schedule. I suppose not everyone has my same parameters (GA airports 20-40 minutes closer to home/destination, me and my wife small/skinny enough and 2 kids young enough that we can fit in just about any 4-place piston, etc) but it works out well for me. The bonus is that there are a lot of additional fun destinations that are impractical on an airline and would take 2-3x longer in a car not counting mind-numbing traffic snarls, another topic related to "hassles".

Posted by: Dennis Lou | September 9, 2013 9:57 AM    Report this comment

You are correct....riding with the airlines is no fun. I try to limit it to non-stop day trips where I'm only carrying an "under the seat" small case. When two of us go in my Beech A36, the cost isn't that much more, if any,and the time savings out to 500 NM is good. When I get where I'm going, my work blessedly is more often than not right at the airport where I land, so no car rental to drive another hour or two. The thought of making sales stops or visiting multiple job sites on longer trips is another alternative as previously mentioned. And let's face it, flying oneself is just more fun!

Posted by: Shirley Roberts | September 9, 2013 11:36 AM    Report this comment

I'm surprized more people aren't there already. I live on the east coast, and fly myself to any destination east of the Mississippi. Except for the longest trips I match the airlines for time and break even on gas (partly because I live over an hour from any scheduled airline airport.) For family trips it's no contest - GA is cheaper. The limiting factor is getting the plane - if you don't own your own it is tough to find an FBO that is good with a week long rental (most rental planes make their living as trainers, and can't be spared for more than a day or so.)

It's too bad most of us are stuck with 1960's era efficiency. The new jets are getting really efficient, with per-mile operating costs for some light jets not too far off from an RV. If only I had a spare 2 or 3 million bucks.

Posted by: Keith Johnson | September 10, 2013 12:13 PM    Report this comment

I think your arguments are not far-fetched at all. I live in Johannesburg South Africa and regularly fly down to Cape Town (800 NM), Namibia, Botswana and further into Africa. For my family of four, in a C210T and lean-of-peak, I'm yet to find a commercial offering that can compare with my cost base in these parts of the world. Then I'm not even bringing into consideration the fun, comfort and flexibility considerations.

Posted by: Nelis Saayman | September 10, 2013 2:38 PM    Report this comment

Paul - I see that you edited your 'rule of thirds,' but you may still wish to re-read it. I don't think that "If I could do the trip on the airline [...], I could justify it by making a few stops along the way [...]" is your intended meaning. Unless, of course, you can convince the airline to make a few stops along the way.

On a more serious note, I have a hard time complaining about air travel when I do my best to pay the least. Given the choice, I routinely choose steerage class in order to save a few bucks. (Of course, being 5' 2" makes the choice easier.)

Posted by: Rush Strong | September 10, 2013 2:50 PM    Report this comment

Depends where you live - We're about 2.5 hours from the nearest major airport (I live in NE Indiana) We made it to Orlando in 7 hours in our Skyhawk on about $600 round trip in gas. When you figure drive time to the airport, arriving 1-2 hours early, and the extra 30 minutes on the other side of the trip, it becomes pretty competitive to driving. Had we taken a faster airplane (were planning to take a Beech 35 but it was down for maintenance) we would have definitely beaten the airlines.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | September 10, 2013 9:41 PM    Report this comment

Like most of us who fly themselves vs. taking the airlines, the dollar numbers are really secondary for me. Almost anything beats airline travel and I don't even try to justify the cost delta.

My wife absolutely freaks out when we have no alternative to flying commercial. Starting with the 100-mile drive through traffic to LAX, through the delays & strip-and-bend-over at the airport, and finally shoehorning our 6'-plus frames and extra poundage into seats designed to hold a 4th-grader for five hours or so, it's just too much for her. And when the spouse is not happy, no one is happy.

Fortunately, we are retired and we don't have to sweat the extra time or feel obligated to tell the kids how much of their inheritance we are blowing on a trip by A36 from California to Grand Turk. And for shorter trips, the cost actually isn't all that much more and the total time comparable or even less.

So you know what? Stop calculating and just go for it!

Posted by: John Wilson | September 13, 2013 11:06 PM    Report this comment

I travel for almost all my US jobs in my own plane. I travelled so much that the constant TSA hassle and time wasting madness with airlines was driving me bananas. I was literally going bonkers. Today, I try to fly myself for every gig, and I couldn't be happier. I stepped up to an Aerostar earlier this year to close the gap even further, and now I beat the airlines not just once in a blue moon, but on almost all flights, door-to-door. Any trip less than 1000nm and I beat the c*ap out of the airlines in time. In cost - not so much. But you know what? It's worth every penny.

Posted by: Adam Frisch | September 18, 2013 2:37 PM    Report this comment

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