General Aviation vs airlines -- where's the cut-off?

This is directed to the Doper pilots. (I’ve been inactive for a few years, but General Aviation is never far from my mind.) Now that I live where I want to live, I don’t fly on airlines as much as I used to. But when I’ve flown recently I’ve found it to be a hassle.

Years ago I read articles where one pilot flew a GA aircraft to a destination, while another flew commercially. IIRC it was concluded that GA is faster for trips up to 400 miles. The reasoning is this: For a commercial flight one must go to an airport where there are commercial flights. Passengers must check in and go through the security checkpoint. Once in the boarding area, they usually have to cool their heels for a while until boarding occurs. At the other end of the trip, the passenger must then get to the destination, which is often far away from the major airport. By contrast, the GA pilot only has to go to the local municipal airport, check the weather, possibly file a flight plan, preflight the aircraft, and take off. At the destination the municipal airport is often much closer to the final destination.

The articles found that even though a jet flies 500+ kts, all of the driving (to and from a major airport) and the waiting around negates the speed advantage on shorter flights. Disadvantes of GA include higher cost (though this can be offset when more people are in the plane) and weather issues.

Let’s assume good flying weather, or that you are IFR rated. Assume your typical ‘flying Ford’ – a Cessna 172 or Piper PA-28 or something similar – that will go 120-130 kts. Assume a rental rate of $100/hour, or that you own your own plane and it costs, say $75/hour for fuel, maintenance, insurance, etc.

When I lived in L.A. I was 7 miles from LAX. With no traffic it would take 20 minutes for me to get there. With traffic it could take longer. Many people have a much farther drive. Let’s assume 30 to 60 minutes to get to a commercial airport. Assume a similar length of time to go from the destination airport to the final destination. And let’s assume that it takes an hour to check in, go through security, get to the boarding area until they open the gate. In my experience, it takes at least 20 minutes to get everyone seated (people don’t seem to know how to efficiently sling their bags into the overhead compartments and then bend in the middle to fit into their seats) and to get the aircraft moving. Then there is an interval between push-back and actually getting on the runway.

I live 20 miles from the nearest municipal airport. (OK, it’s an international airport, but there is GA activity there.) It takes me half an hour to get there. If I lived in town it would take me 10 minutes. So let’s assume it takes the GA pilot 20 minutes to get to the airport. Again, let’s assume a similar time to get from the destination airport to the final destination. Allow 20 minutes for a weather briefing and to file a flight plan. Ten minutes to preflight the aircraft, and another ten to get to the runway and do the run-up.

What is the longest distance given those rough parameters that a GA flight would be quicker than a commercial flight? In much the same way as we trade airspeed for altitude or vice versa, how much time would you add to your trip in exchange for the pleasure of flying yourself and to avoid the indignity and burden of dealing with commercial preflight procedures?

It’s a cost issue for me, and I assume for most PP’s. The airlines will virtually always be cheaper on any trip long enough where I wouldn’t automatically just go by car anyway, and in weather that would ground me even if I were instrument-rated. GA for business trips can be cost-effective for those businesspersons who need to travel between remote/unserved airports, but you already know that.

Flying is a recreational activity solely for me. If you get into cost-benefit analysis on a hobby, the answer is predictable right up front.

Nevertheless, GA can be a good alternative. As I said, I don’t travel much now that I live where I do. It seems that most often my trips are to visit a friend in Coos Bay, OR. It’s about 500 miles from my place to hers, which takes about eight hours. Just for fun, I checked flights from BLI.

BLI is served by Horizon Air, which can get me as far as Eugene, Oregon (EUG). The shortest flight is two hours and 35 minutes. Most of the flights are seven hours and 30 minutes. From EUG to Coos Bay it’s 107 miles, or about two and a quarter hours. So given the most common flights, the trip from my house to my friend’s house in Coos Bay would take about 9-1/2 hours if I flew – versus 8 hours if I drove. (The most common fare is $216.)

If I were to fly in a Skyhawk, the trip would be between 4-1/2 to 5 hours from my house to Coos Bay, including the drive to BLI and a quick stop for fuel. Assuming I owned my own airplane and assuming $75/hour to fly it (approximately 4.167 hours flying time), that comes out to $312.50 if I follow the roads. (Flying time would be shortened because I would not have to follow the roads. Just ballparking it here by keeping over the roads.) So the Cessna would cost $100 more than flying commercially, but I’d get to my destination in half the time. Even if I took the shortest commercial flight, I’d break even time-wise.

Of course flying for me has been a hobby, so you are correct that for the most part cost-benefit doesn’t really come into play. Only, for this particular flight the cost is not that much more compared to the benefit of a shorter trip. And I wouldn’t have to cool my jets waiting for the connecting flight or have to take off my shoes and belt.

I just don’t see 100 mph by air being worth 10x the cost of 70 mph by car.

The comparison was not between a Bugsmasher 150 and a car. :wink:

Yes, it’s cheaper to drive. I’d burn about 9-1/2 gallons to drive, or about $26. If I took the Jeep, I’d burn about 25 gallons and spend $70 – plus whatever I spent for food. Call it $80. So flying would only cost four times as much. And no slogging through the horrendous stretch through southern Washington. :wink:

Okay, pleading ignorace. I always though a knot was a kilometer per hour. :smack: I still think four times the cost isn’t worth twice the speed.

1 knot is 1.15 mph.

But the question is not GA airplane vs. a car. It’s GA airplane vs. a commercial flight. What I’m asking is where does a GA pilot draw the line between flying himself or herself, and flying commercially? How much time saved is worth the extra expense?

In my example, it makes more sense to spend an extra $100 on a five-hour trip in order to save several hours. It’s 1,200 miles from Bellingham to Los Angeles. Flying privately would be quite a lot more expensive than flying commercially, and flying commercially would be faster. So to answer the ‘where is the cut-off’ question, 1,200 miles it too far to fly a GA aircraft instead of a commercial one. Coos Bay is a little out of the way, so a 500-mile trip by GA makes sense.

But going to a different city, a 500-mile trip might make more sense on a commercial flight. It really depends on where you are and where you’re going. I’m just asking on average – commercial flying vs. GA flying – where’s the cut-off? 100 miles? 300? 500?

Too many variables, too much individual circumstance involved. Sorry, Johnny, there’s no answer.

It looks like you’ve got the numbers for what it costs to fly a GA plane, but I didn’t see anything about multiple people on the trip - on a commercial flight, if the fare is $200 per person, and three people are going, the total fare is $600. (Well, probably more like $682 with the landing and TSA fees that get snuck in at the end.)

On a GA plane, are you paying a flat $xx per hour on the engine or are you paying by the gallon? Either way, the cost to fly three people is not going to be triple the cost of flying one person.

Ignoring the math, pretty much every person I’ve ever met with a pilot’s license would jump at the opportunity to fly themselves if they could afford it. “I might as well be a suitcase, sitting back here” was one memorable complaint from a friend with a commercial license as they were wedged into a coach seat. We were going from San Francisco to Chicago in December, so we didn’t have the time for an LXC and the weather was not exactly hospitable to little airplanes, but the sentiment was understandable.

Another one that’s interesting to look at is when it’s faster to drive than fly. Some years back, the San Francisco Chronicle sent two people to Los Angeles - about a 400 mile trip. Think they were going to the LA Times’ office. The driver won the race. Today, with even tighter airport security, it would probably be even more lopsided.

Carrying more people may mean you have to carry less fuel. This might result in an additional stop on a long trip. You might lose a couple of knots due to the extra weight, so your trip will be a fraction longer. But leaving those technicalities aside, it costs the same whether you’re the only one on board or if all of the seats are full.

Rentals are by ‘flying hour’. Usually this is measured on the Hobbs meter, which measures clock time. Flying clubs often charge by tach time, which depends on RPM. If you own your own plane, you’re burning a certain amount of fuel every hour. Call it 9 gph. Fuel consumption will depend on the power setting, altitude, etc. Those things also affect speed. (And I’m not even counting headwinds and tailwinds.) There’s also the cost of oil, which is consumed and must be changed periodically; annual inspections (or 100-hour inspections if your plane is used commercially; rental, for example); engine overhaul (1,500 to 2,000 tach hours); insurance; tie-down; avionics maintenance; other routine maintenance; and whatever else I forgot. When I was flying R22s, they cost the FBO $100/hour to fly and they rented them for $200/hour. When I started flying, the costs listed above for my dad’s Skyhawk were $33/hour (I know this because my math-whiz dad calculated it and that’s how much he charged me to rent his plane) and it rented for $55/hour. Last time I checked, a Skyhawk rented for $100 more or less. So my $75/hour owner/operator figure is just a guess.

But yeah, it gets cheaper the more seats are filled.

In my hypothetical trip to Coos Bay, the car would be faster unless I got on the atypical flight. Getting through security is an ever increasing burden, and most flights I’ve taken require sitting around waiting for a connecting flight. The ability to fly a GA aircraft directly to your destination is a big advantage of them. The other is that the GA traveller spends less time waiting around. (Ignoring weather delays of course, which are a factor up here but not so much when I lived in L.A.) The big disadvantage of GA is its cost. But there can be mitigating factors such as filling more seats and not having to rent a car for a two-hour drive once you land.

Do they really design light aircraft so they can hold a full fuel load or a full passenger load, but not both?

A Cessna 172 Skyhawk has a useful load of 830 pounds. Full fuel is about 252 pounds. So you’ve got 578 pounds to play with, or 144.5 pounds per seat. So if all seats were filled with the FAA-standard 170 pound adult (they may have revised that number in recent years), you’ll have to leave someone behind or leave out 17 gallons. A man, woman, and a couple of kids would pose less of a problem. For example, let’s say you weigh 190 pounds, your wife weighs 115, and you have two kids that weigh 40 and 60 pounds. With full fuel you still have room for luggage.


And this.

Flying is always for the recreational aspect of it. If someone GIVES me a Lancair IV with a fuel burn of 18 gph and a 75 % cruise of 260 mph (wag performance figures) and $4/gal that would be about .22 cents a mile. At $6/gal it would be .33 cents a mile. A 50 hr yearly flight log and $2,000 on insurance and annuals and that’s another .15 cents a mile.

I fly to places I want to visit such as Oshkosh, or a small island airport such as Put-in-Bay. More likely I’m searching for a $100 hamburger so there really isn’t a destination in mind other than an excuse to fly over gridlock. It’s NEVER cost effective. Of the few times I’ve used a plane to travel I got weathered in so the added cost of hotels made the trip even more expensive.

As far as I’m concerned, flying myself is never cheaper or faster than the airline. I live 30 minutes away from a major airline hub, but an hour away from my GA airport, so there goes one of the often quoted time advantage. Also, I find the time spent on flight planning and preflight are often grossly underestimated in these analyses. 30 minutes to check the weather and preflight is reasonable only if this is a familiar route that you’ve flown many times before, the weather is nice, the aircraft is already fuelled and out of the hangar, you don’t have much baggage to load, and you’re either flying just yourself or only with passengers familiar with GA flying that don’t need a lot of babysitting. Perhaps I’m just slow or overly cautious, but if this is a flight to a new airport or out of my home area, I’m going to need an hour at the very least just for the flight planning to go over all the information, and probably more if the weather is expected to be IMC.

Why don’t you fly commercially? See what I mean? At some point you decided that it was ‘better’ to fly yourself rather than to fly commercially, rent a car, get a boat, etc. Going for the $100 is fun. (Ask me about my $300 Pepsi – and I prefer Coke!) But if you’re going to go somewhere, at what point do you say, ‘Flying myself is better than flying commercially.’?

Dad and I used to fly out to Las Vegas for lunch. We could drive 75 miles to LAX and take Southwest, or we could hop in the Skyhawk or Skylane and just go there directly. Sure, it was really an excuse to get a couple of hours of stick time each; but it also made more sense (to us) to fly a Cessna than it did to fly commercially.

It’s not about money. Of course it will be more expensive to fly yourself. But flying commercially means fighting traffic getting to the airport, going through security, and a lot of waiting around. The question is not, ‘Is GA better than commercial?’ It’s ‘Given the option of GA vs. commercial, at what point do you decide one is the better option for you?’ Which is to say that the answer is subjective.

Here’s my answer: While it would be cheaper and faster for me to fly to Portland, a distance of about 375 miles, I would opt, if I owned my own airplane, to fly myself. The main reason is for the experience and fun. Security and schedules also come into play. Coos Bay, being a little out of the way, takes into account the fun and security issues; but also takes into the time factor. Given the opportunity I’d take three days to get somewhere in a Cessna. Not efficient or cheap, but it’s on my own schedule. For a more casual trip, my ‘cut-off’ is two tanks of gas or eight hours in the seat; whichever is less. (Cessna seats get a little uncomfortable after about six hours. Ask me how I know.)

It is too about money, for most people. It’s a choice about how to use discretionary income, and for most people that isn’t enough to cover personal flying anywhere and anytime. If you’re one of the lucky few who aren’t so limited financially, then, well, I want to be a better friend to you than I’ve been so far. :slight_smile:

At Oshkosh I camp with my plane. I’ve tried renting cars and houses but camping is a better experience. Flying to a Great Lakes island can only be done in a small plane. $100 hamburgers are at airports like Lunkin which are almost museums unto themselves. Most of my flights end at a location that has some hidden nugget of joy such as a B-17 restoration or a museum within taxi distance. I also fly to take pictures for use in other hobbies (historic tours).

If I’m traveling from point A to point B it’s on an airline. The last time I flew up from Sun-N-Fun it was over 700 miles by myself (at night) over the mountains. With 2 fuel stops it took forever to climb over them. It ceased being fun about half way through. I like to keep flights to around 4 hrs with a single fuel stop in between. On an airliner I can drink, read a magazine and doze off.

It’s fun to get above the clouds for an hour or two but at some point flying without an auto-pilot becomes a chore. That’s when I fly commercial.

Johnny, you’re looking to cost/time-justify a small plane; Trust me, it can’t be done.

I’m on my second GA aircraft, and although we use it frequently to avoid the hassles you’ve mentioned, I’ve never been able to honestly claim a savings in either cost or time. The above posts touched on preflight prep, but failed to account for the biggest time sink – maintaining currency. If you add in all your practice flights, IFR currency, night currency, etc., the private plane comes out as a considerable time loss over the airlines (imo). Factoring in weather delays, maintenance delays, and stopping to refuel (for a full seat load), and the picture gets even more bleak. Not trying to discourage you, but small planes remain a niche market for a reason.

As far as your original question, we usually use the plane for trips in the less than 500 mile range (max full fuel range), but on occasion will use it for much longer journeys. This Xmas season, my kids used the plane to zip over to Grandma’s house (my son needed to get back in town for work) while I followed in the car at a more leisurely pace (and carrying the Xmas presents). I have a lot of time off during the holidays, and didn’t want to fit my trip around the fickle weather. In order to return, my son had to leave early to take advantage of a weather window, while the rest of us stayed and enjoyed my parent’s hospitality (hilariously, he got back and discovered he’d locked his car in our hangar, and forgotten his keys. See how efficient small plane travel can be?:p).

As for vacations, we’ve used the plane(s) for trips in the 1200-mile range, but still ended up doing a lot of replanning to fit weather interruptions. You have to remember that an instrument rating still doesn’t get you through heavy weather or icing. Small planes just aren’t equipped for that. They’re really more useful for quick trips to the beach, hunting lease, or relatives, than for long range multi-stop journeys. On long vacations, we use either the car, or our RV. The plane just doesn’t carry enough luggage.

I guess the short answer is to use the plane because it’s fun. Not because it saves you any time.

If you’ve read other posts I’ve made over the years, you may have noticed I have a tendency to provide hypothetical data or personal choices that lead people to persue unintended avenues. I did this in the OP, as I would rather trade money to save hassles.

Your remarks in your second paragraph are well-taken; however, I see maintaining currency (I’ll point out again that I am not current, and haven’t been for a few years now) is just part of the game. That is, an active pilot is already going to keep currency. The assumption is that the pilot has an option to fly to a destination if he wants to; the time and cost of learning to fly in the first place and keeping current are not issues because he is not saying ‘I am going to learn to fly and then I won’t have to fly commercially.’ He’s already doing it and using his ticket to go places is just another option.

Magiver said that a plane is the only way to go to the Great Lakes. But that’s not strictly true. It’s the only way to get there reasonably. He could fly to a major airport, hire a car, and hire a boat. People even got to a lot of places in Alaska before there were planes. It was just an arduous journey. He camps at Oshkosh because ‘it’s a better experience’. So while I said that visiting my friend would take less time than flying commercially and then hiring a car, ‘the experience’ is the biggest reason most pilots like to fly themselves.

Weather has been mentioned more than once, as have the limitations of GA aircraft in weather. Obviously, not having an IFR ticket, I would not fly to Coos Bay in poor weather. Even if I was rated, there’s weather I won’t fly in. I think we’ve all experienced the disappointment of getting to the airport and finding the conditions are too poor to fly. But I’m an odd duck. I’ve ridden motorcycles in pouring rain. Was I miserable? Yes. But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. So if I were stuck somewhere until the weather clears, I’d take it in stride and appreciate it for what it is. Dealing with get-there-itis and opting to wait it out makes for better stories than getting from Point A to Point B on a sunny, calm day. :wink:

My dad was a Flight Service Specialist in the FAA and was stationed at Daggett (middle of the desert) for a while. I was visiting one Summer, and a young couple were stranded because of high winds. (They were flying a J-3 Cub with camping gear lashed to the struts.) Dad let them stay at his house on the airport for a couple of days until the wind died down. (And I got a ride in the J-3. :slight_smile: ) He opened his house to stranded pilots more than once, and made lifelong friendships. So for me, I like the adventure. (I’ve never been stranded. The only things that happened was once when I was a kid we lost electrical power at sundown when mom was flying my sister and me to dad’s, and once in Las Vegas when the battery in the Skylane died and the lineman had to hand-prop.)

What I’m getting at is this: If flying yourself is an option, then there will be times when you say ‘This trip is worth it,’ and ‘This trip is not.’ You’ll never save money. For some trips, you might save time. When I had a plane available to me, flying from WJF to LAS was a no-brainer. The trips from WJF to MFD would have been considerably cheaper and faster than taking the 172 or 182; but it was still ‘worth it’ to go by Cessna because it’s fun. (Well, the vertigo when we were in the soup – dad was a CFII – wasn’t much fun; but I got a couple of hours of actual IFR experience under his tutelage.)

So the point of this thread is at what point do all of the factors of GA outweigh flying commercially? For you (pullin) it seems that 500 miles is the general cut-off, weather permitting. For Macgiver it appears that being able to ‘plane camp’ or getting someplace that would be very inconvenient to get to by other means is the deciding factor. That’s all I’m asking; where do you (Doper pilots) draw the line?

I apologize for trying to view this like an accountant. I occasionally find myself in front of MzPullin nervously going through spreadsheets trying to justify this month’s maintenance bill.:rolleyes: She just rolls her eyes, smiles, and asks when I’m taking her to the beach in this expensive toy (Correct answer: “Next weekend, Dear.”). So I ended up answering like it’s a balance sheet question.

As to your question: …at what point do all of the factors of GA outweigh flying commercially? I’d have to answer that GA outweighs commercial almost anytime. Why look at the back of someone’s seat when you can see this view or just watch those little east Texas towns moving past under the wing? Like you say, it’s not really a money decision.:cool: