Personal Airline

For those of us who use general aviation to travel, conversations often come up comparing the use of our airplanes to the commercial airlines. This has become a major issue since Sept. 11 and the absolute mess the commercial airline system is in right now. The growth of fractional jet ownership organizations is one direct result. But what about small plane GA versus the airlines?

This summer I had the chance to do some direct comparisons of my plane (a 140 knot single) against the airlines. My wife and I, along with my two teenagers, left our house for the airport for a trip to New Jersey. Meanwhile, my oldest daughter and her husband left our same town headed for the Charlotte airport to catch a flight to New Jersey where they’d meet up with us.

For me, it was a 20-minute drive to the airport, the preflight and loading took another 20 minutes, and we were off. I filed IFR, but the weather was VMC all the way. Three hours and 12 minutes later we were landing in Monmouth, N.J., which was 15 minutes from our hotel. While I signed out the rental car and took care of my FBO requests, my wife and kids unloaded the plane. We loaded the rental car, I completed securing the plane and we were walking into our hotel rooms 40 minutes after landing. Total time door-to-door: 4 hours and 32 minutes.

My daughter and son-in-law arrived at the Charlotte airport 30 minutes after leaving home, parked the car and were in the terminal 10 minutes after that – two hours before their scheduled 8:10 p.m. departure. At 7:30, they received an announcement that the flight would be delayed due to bad weather in Newark. (The airport I used is 30 nm south of Newark, and it was severe clear throughout New Jersey when I landed at 5:30 p.m., and stayed that way.)

They finally departed at 9:30 and were delayed again due to traffic in Newark. They didn’t land until midnight. An hour and a half later they walked into the hotel, eight hours from when they left their home, which is minutes from where I live. Advantage: Cardinal by three and a half hours.

On the return trip, all of us left the hotel at 8:30 a.m. My group and I were rolling down the runway at 9:19 a.m. Two hours into the trip we went IMC and at 12:27, after a GPS approach, we were touching down in Salisbury, N.C. (RUQ). Unloading luggage, securing the plane, and driving home put us in our driveway at 1:03.

For my daughter and her husband, their drive to Newark, checking in the car, waiting time and flight, which was close to on time, put them into Charlotte at 1 p.m., and home just under an hour later. Advantage, Cardinal by one hour.

My next trip to Nebraska and Kansas, I couldn’t have come close to matching the schedule flexibility, cost, and ease of carrying my video production gear had I tried the airlines. It was so nice to be able to say, “no problem” if the shooting schedule was altered due to weather or personnel factors and not worry about changing airline arrangements.

Another neat factor was that my final location was in Burdett, Kan. One traffic light, one café that seats 20 and a grass strip right there. When I was finished, I departed for my 3.7-hour flight, most of it in IMC, to Memphis. What a time warp, and a testimony to general aviation, that I could leave this 2,500-foot grass strip, weaving and dodging around the cow pies on takeoff roll (cows graze on the runway) and then shoot an ILS to minimums on one of the three two-mile long — twice the length of the town of Burdett — runways in Memphis.

My wife was on business in Memphis so I used Memphis as my refueling point during my trip home to spend the night with her. The next day, her business finished early and we both left Memphis at the same time heading for home – she on the airlines through Charlotte and me in my airplane. Her flight was scheduled to leave at 2 p.m., but didn’t take off until 3:30 with a 6 p.m. landing in Charlotte. I took off at 2:34 p.m. and landed at RUQ at 6:05 p.m. She beat me to the driveway by four minutes, but I brought her luggage with me so she didn’t have to wait for it. Advantage: Cardinal. Had her flight been on time, she would have beaten me home. But I still would rather have been in my plane. So would my wife, but her car was in Charlotte, so we decided to go with the original plan.

Time was when I’d compare using my airplane to the airlines anytime I had a trip that would require a fuel stop. The rule was “no fuel stop, always the airplane, one fuel stop, evaluate it first.” The continuous deterioration of commercial airline service, coupled with the ever-increasing utility of even the under 150 knot airplanes like mine, has gotten me to the point where now it takes more than one fuel stop before I even look at the airline schedules as a possible alternative.

Guy R. Maher has been involved in aircraft sales and type-specific training since 1972. With more than 12,500 hours in GA airplanes and helicopters, he currently flies an IFR EMS helicopter, is an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor, and provides consultation and testimony on operational and safety issues for legal proceedings.

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