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The Airlines vs. Air Dale
by Dale Brown, [IMAGE]2007

ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED AT TheBigFiveOh.com Blog @ Yahoo.Com, Monday April 16, 2007

[MEGAFORTRESS.COM image] I was recently asked to comment on private versus commercial aviation. Here goes:

Private and commercial aviation both have their pros and cons, mostly in terms of time and distance:

I'll fly commercial airlines rather than fly my own plane any time a flight is longer than 8 hours of flying in one day, or two legs (one stop). 8 hours will get me about halfway across the U.S., which is from northwest Nevada to north-central Arkansas where my Dad lives (about 1,600 miles). 8 hours of flying, 2 hours of time changes, and 1 hour for a fuel and rest stop is 11 hours, which is a full day if you're at the controls.

Because of long delays at security and because airline traffic often means speed restrictions, I can beat the airlines to almost any point west of the Rockies, and come pretty close to almost any destination west of the Mississippi (except Dallas and Chicago which have direct flights from Reno). In my plane, Reno to Los Angeles takes about 2.25 hours. Flight time is only 1.25 hours on the airlines, but if you add in waiting and security screening time it's closer to 3 hours.

Flying my plane is equivalent in price to flying first class, so cost-wise if I flew first class on short hops there is almost no difference between my plane and the airlines. Reno-Seattle would cost me $300 and 3 hours in my plane and $215 and 1.75 hours flying first-class on Alaska Airlines one-way. However, the more passengers I take in my plane, the more cost-efficient it becomes to fly myself. Flying my family first-class Reno-Seattle on Alaska Air would cost $645, but still only cost $300 in my plane.

However, I don't usually fly first-class on short hops, so the airlines usually win in price, especially during price wars. Flying refundable economy Reno-Seattle costs $163, and sometimes the price goes below $100.

My plane creams the airlines to certain out-of-the-way destinations. Reno to Newport, Oregon, where my wife Diane's folks live, is 1.5 hours Reno to Portland but then a 4-hour drive to Newport (where there's no scheduled airline service). My plane can go directly to Newport's airport, and since Diane's folks live just 5 minutes from the airport, it's an easy 2.5-hour trip. Reno to Santa Barbara, California is 2 hours of flying time for both my plane and the airlines, but since there are no direct airline flights I'd have to fly through San Francisco, where weather and traffic delays might make it an all-day affair!

Even on longer trips, I can beat the airlines on some trips. It takes 11 hours to fly from Reno to my Dad's place in Arkansas, including all stops and time changes. Flying the airlines would take 4-5 hours longer because of the long drive I'd have to take from Springfield, Missouri or Little Rock to my Dad's place in northern Arkansas.

On longer trips, the airlines win in convenience, comfort, and price, even flying first-class with the entire family. The airlines win in all-weather capability and general reliability. The stress factor is obviously much lower on the airlines because I'm not in charge of the flight!

Other than the cost, the other downside to flying yourself is the danger. General aviation is 100 times more deadly than commercial aviation! It's akin to driving a car versus riding a motorcycle. The danger comes from the fact that in general aviation you're almost always alone, while in commercial aviation you have a crew of at least one other person helping you. The equipment in commercial aviation is also more robust and reliable and is maintained on a stricter level than private aviation.

The danger can be mitigated by practice, experience, training, and continuing education, but it can never be completely eliminated. The airlines will always win in overall safety.

I feel differently flying commercially thgan I do flying myself. Flying commercial is almost stress-free, even considering late arrivals, baggage and ticket hassles, dealing with other passengers, and security concerns. I love chatting with the crew--I often pass out copies of my novels to the crew, and it's a real pleasure to get to know them more closely.

Flying myself means an almost constant wariness if not tension, with short periods of flat-out stress (which generally increase as the day's flying hours increase). The wariness always start one or two days BEFORE the flight itself, when I start watching the weather and begin my mental countdown to launch.

Flying the airlines leaves time to think about other things than the trip itself, so the time spent on an airliner are free and flexible to think, plan, write, socialize, or even do nothing but nap or relax. Definitely not true with personal aviation. Even on completely uneventful flights in perfect weather with all systems A-OK, you must always be on guard, scanning the instruments, scanning the skies, and monitoring your progress. Sure, you can have XM satellite radio or a music CD on, but you always have one ear and most of your brain tuned to the radios and listening and sensing the plane and the skies. Thirty minutes before landing, the external entertainment inputs all get turned off, and you're thinking and planning ahead to the approach and landing.

As the flying day gets longer, you now have to monitor YOURSELF as well, because although the tension may prevent you from feeling tired, your body and mind are definitely tiring. If you have passengers, you must deal with them and their needs as well, but flying solo might be even more demanding because it's your mind versus your body, with no one around except perhaps air traffic controllers watching over you.

So what's the big attraction to private aviation?

The big intangible factor in this whole dynamic that overrides even the greater danger or inconvenience is the pleasure and challenge of using the skills of a pilot. There's nothing quite like it. If you look hard at the numbers, frankly, flying my own plane rarely makes sense unless you consider the fact that you're using a skill that less than 1% of all adult Americans possess.

Flying is at the same time a skill and an art--and that's something you cannot claim as an airline passenger. If you're really lucky, you get to ignite the wonder and imagination of a youngster when you take them on their first plane flight and let them take the controls, or you help others by joining an organization like Angel Flight where you volunteer your time and machine to fly medical patients for free to receive medical treatment. The rewards are immeasurable.

Which do I prefer?

I'll plead the Fifth on that one!

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