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What’s It Like to Fly by Private Aircraft?

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If you’ve been spending time lately flying without enough legroom or waiting in epic TSA lines, you may be wondering if there are other options. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent (and pilot) Jason Steele discusses the world of private aviation.

Perhaps you’ve noticed a few small, private jets at your local airport, across the ramp from the airline passenger terminal. Or maybe you’ve seen a small single-engine plane flying overhead or landing at a nearby airfield Before I became obsessed with points and miles, I was obsessed with becoming a commercial pilot—so much so that I decided to purchase my own airplane in order to travel around the country and build experience toward my career.

It’s somewhat of a tradition in my family, as my father also has a pilot’s license, and we used to pile into the family airplane to visit my grandparents the way many Americans pile into the family station wagon for a road trip. I often get asked about what it’s like to fly in a private plane, so today I want to describe the experience for the curious among you, as well as offer some ideas of you can try it at a reasonable price.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Pistons versus jets

Before you conjure up an image of of my glamorous youth spent globetrotting in daddy’s private jet, let me burst that bubble quickly. In the world of general aviation (the term that describes non-commercial and non-military aircraft), a private jet is the stretch limo of the sky. I, like my father before me, flew piston-powered, single-engine aircraft that were several decades old, and had interior space and comfort comparable to an old-fashioned VW Beetle.

There are two classes of private aircraft out there: the pistons and the turbines. Most smaller aircraft run on engines similar to what you’d find in your car. The slowest of these planes fly at about 100 miles per hour, while the fastest might reach 250, with speeds of 150 to 200 being the most common. The vast majority of people with a pilot’s license fly small, piston-powered aircraft with one engine and fewer than six seats. Some eventually move up to twin engine planes that offer a little more speed and reliability, but at about four times the cost.

But even those don’t compare to the skill and money required to operate a turbine-powered airplane, which includes both jets and turbine-powered propeller aircraft, called turboprops. These aircraft can cost 5-10 times more to operate than a propeller airplane of similar size, and just like a limo is rarely driven by its owner, turbine-powered aircraft are usually operated by professional pilots, usually including a co-pilot. Turboprops typically fly at 250-350 miles per hour, while jets will generally operate between 350 miles an hour up to 550 miles per hour, the cruising speed of your typical Boeing or Airbus jet.

One advantage of smaller airports: no lines! Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The experience of private aircraft travel

Flying somewhere in a general aviation aircraft is entirely different than traveling on a commercial plane. First, you start from a small, general aviation airport rather than the large international airport you would normally go to. Places like Teterboro Airport just outside of New York, or Van Nuys near Los Angeles are among the largest general aviation fields in the country; on the other end of the spectrum, it wasn’t uncommon for me to depart from small airstrips with just a few airplanes and few or no staff.

I would drive to the airport, pull my four seat, 1976 Grumman Cheetah out of my hangar by hand, and then park my car in the hangar, which conveniently doubles as a secure, covered parking spot. After performing a pre-flight safety inspection, I would load passengers and cargo into the plane (much like you might load up your car for a road trip). In total, it usually took me about half an hour from the time I arrived until I took off. During this time, no one removed their shoes, was patted down, or had their luggage screened. So if you want to carry firearms, liquids, pets, or anything else, it’s your call.

People often ask me if I needed special permission to fly anywhere, or if I had to pay the airport for taking off and landing. Many were surprised to hear that for the most part, you don’t. As a pilot, you can file a flight plan, which allows air traffic control to track you more easily, but in most cases it’s not required. Only the largest airports would charge a landing fee, but there was little reason to use those facilities in a small plane, and I only remember paying a small fee a few times.

Grumman Cheetah plane
I flew a 1976 Grumman Cheetah, like the one pictured here.

During the flight in a small, piston-powered airplane, you’ll likely be wearing noise-cancelling headphones, if only to protect against hearing loss, as it’s far louder than any commercial airplane. Needless to say, there’s no bathroom on most planes that seat fewer than eight people, so that’s a major factor in the range you can fly non-stop (especially if you have kids). A typical flight might last two to three hours and cover perhaps 500 miles, and it’s common to refuel multiple times when covering larger distances.

Another disadvantage is that small aircraft are far more vulnerable to weather or mechanical delays. When the weather looks bad or something on the plane doesn’t look right, a safe pilot will just cancel the flight, throwing a monkey wrench into any existing plans. Eventually, I got in the habit of never making non-refundable hotel reservations, and usually I would find lodging only upon landing.

This might sound like a terrible way to travel, but it has several surprising advantages. First, small aircraft have access to over 5,000 general aviation airports in the United States, while commercial aircraft only serve about 500. In addition, it’s up to pilots to create their own schedules and non-stop routes, which can be incredibly convenient.

So if you need to get from Birmingham, Alabama to St. Louis, Missouri, you can fly the 411 miles in just about three hours, rather than spend all day taking two commercial flights (with a plane change in Atlanta) or driving over seven hours. The advantage of general aviation is greatest when you’re flying to some remote town far off the highway or away from an airport with commercial service.  In fact, some of my fondest memories are of flying to small islands in the Bahamas, within a couple hours flying time of Florida, which are only accessible by private aircraft or boats.

Upon arrival at larger general aviation airfields, pilots and passengers are offered use of the general aviation terminal, which includes lounge areas and refreshments that rival many business class lounges. In many cases, pilots are offered a “courtesy car” that they can use to make short trips into town. These short term rentals are complimentary, with the understanding that the pilot is buying fuel there. In addition, the staff there can help arrange for longer paid rentals and hotel accommodations, so it’s a really different experience than arriving at a commercial terminal.

Private Jet 2 featured shutterstock 186681056
Private aircraft are fun, but they’re not cheap.

The costs

Renting a four-seat, single-engine airplane costs about $100 per operating hour (no charge when the engine isn’t running). Such planes can be purchased for about $200,000 new, and used aircraft are plentiful starting at around $20,000. Interestingly, these old planes hold their value, and can even appreciate slightly when properly maintained, more like real estate than a used car. Obtaining a pilot’s license costs about $10,000 and requires months of training.

Moving up to a professionally flown turbine-powered aircraft, it would be difficult to find a plane and crew for under $500 per hour, and expect prices of over $1,000 an hour to charter a private jet. For that amount, you get a far faster and more comfortable aircraft, often with an on-board lavatory. While expensive, this might be an affordable option for some groups who need to travel together, especially on routes that don’t have commercial service. American Express Platinum cardholders can actually book private jet travel by calling Platinum Travel Services at 800-525-3355, and receive a $300 credit toward limousine transfer services as a cardholder benefit.

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Charter flights will serve some of the smaller general aviation airports that can’t be reached on regular commercial airlines.

Flying a private aircraft for less

Being a reader of The Points Guy, you may be probably wondering how you can experience private aircraft travel at a discount. Fortunately, I can recommend a few ways to do this. First, there are companies that operate aircraft in somewhat of a hybrid model between commercial airlines and private charters. These “scheduled charters” offer service in smaller aircraft, from smaller airports and in smaller towns than even the regional airlines do. I once served as a pilot for one of these operations.

These aircraft (usually turboprops or twin-engine piston aircraft) depart from general aviation terminals that do have TSA checkpoints and often feature free parking. Examples include the Denver Air Connection and several different operations under the Public Charters umbrella.

Another way to experience relatively inexpensive private air travel is to purchase a highly discounted “empty leg.” The idea is that a charter company is flying an airplane somewhere to drop off paying passengers, but then must reposition the plane somewhere else. They will then offer seats on that flight, or the entire airplane at just a fraction of their cost rather than fly the plane empty. Google the term “empty leg” and you might find a plane going where you want to be.

Finally, you might try to befriend a local private pilot, as they are legally allowed to share their costs with you. It wasn’t unusual for me to take on a passenger every now and then, provided that he or she was willing to pay a share of the cost, and I wasn’t allowed to ask them for more. Several companies have attempted to create an “Uber for airplanes,” but the FAA has shut them down each time.

Jason Steele and other travel gurus will be speaking at the Family Travel for Real Life seminar on March 7, 2015 in Charlotte, NC. Check the link for more details.

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