Taking a commercial flight today is “the equivalent of traveling via Greyhound bus in the 1970s,” according to Victoria Person-Goral, one of USA Today’s panel of frequent travelers.
It’s not hard to see why she says this. Today’s flight passengers are herded through slow-moving security checks that require the removal of shoes and jackets, as well as being subject to an invasive X-ray. Complain too loudly, and you may be placed on the Federal Government’s No Fly List or charged with a civil fine.
When you finally board the plane, you discover your assigned seat is between two strangers, one who keeps sniffling and another whose elbow continually trespasses into your space. There’s no room in the overhead bins for your carry-on. To add your misery, the child behind you spends the entire flight kicking the back of your seat. If you’re really unlucky, you discover on landing that your checked bags are on a different plane headed to the other side of the continent.
Fortunately, there is a better way to fly, and it’s not as expensive as you might think.
The History of Private Planes
The Piper J-3 Cub was one of the first airplanes designed for personal use. It sold for just under $1,000 in 1939 and became synonymous with the term “tail-dragger.” In the early years of flight, all planes were designed with a wheel under each wing and another under the tail, hence the name tail-dragger. This design was subsequently modified to simplify ground travel, takeoffs, and landings by moving the third wheel from the tail to the nose of the plane in a tricycle configuration. The Piper Cub carried one passenger and flew at a maximum airspeed of 74 mph. More than 20,000 Cubs were purchased by aspiring pilots, and many of these planes are still flying today thanks to committed hobbyists.
The personal aircraft market took off after World War II, with Piper, Cessna, and Beech offering multi-passenger, propeller-driven aircraft that could cruise at more than 100 mph. These light planes could utilize very short runways made of pavement or level pasture. The years between 1960 and 1980 were known as the “Golden Age of Flying” as small and large businesses used airplanes as a substitute for automobiles, trains, and commercial airlines.
Today, there are 14,485 private airports in the United States, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – nearly three times the amount of public airports (5,116). There are almost 175,000 FAA-certified private pilots. According to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), more than 200,000 private planes were active in the U.S. in 2016, including almost 128,000 single-engine, piston-driven models. Pilots spent more than 24 million hours in flight that year, averaging 135 hours per plane. The average age of private pilots was 44.8 years, with most student pilots learning to fly in their early 30s.
My Experience as a Plane Owner & Pilot
I know from experience how rewarding private aviation can be.
In the 1980s, my company had subsidiary operations in small towns from New Mexico to Mississippi. The officers, including myself, visited each site monthly, so every week someone was on the road. Commercial airlines didn’t serve the small communities where our facilities were located, so we had to rent a car and drive several hours to and from our plants and larger airports. Missing a flight led to an overnight motel stay, wasting time and money.
In the summer of 1984, two of the traveling executives and I purchased a used 1969 Cessna 210 airplane. The plane had room to carry four to six people with luggage with a load limit of 1,012 pounds. The Cessna cruised at over 200 mph and utilized the short runways common to our sites.
Our longest flight each week (between Dallas, Texas and Lewisville, Mississippi) took between two and a half and three and a half hours, depending on wind direction and speed. That was much better than our previous trips of six hours or more, including renting a car and driving the last 100 miles to a facility. The Cessna cut a two-day trip in half with no overnight stays.
When we purchased the plane, none of us owners had a pilot’s license. We hired a commercial pilot for trips in our early months of ownership while we took lessons, developed piloting skills, and built up the hours necessary for a private license.
My pilot’s license allowed me to use the plane for leisure as well as business. Before acquiring the Cessna, the four-hour drive to my hometown, in which I contended with speeding semi trucks and cement haulers, left me exhausted, irritable, and impatient. As a result, I visited my parents infrequently.
Using the Cessna, my family and I regularly visited my parents, flying 200 miles each way on weekends. I often made an early morning flight out, had breakfast with my father and mother, and returned early enough to play golf in the afternoon. After looking down at the snarled lanes of traffic as I flew blithely overhead, I arrived at my destination refreshed with a positive attitude for the rest of the day.
Advantages of Private Plane Travel
Private plane flyers enjoy:
The majority of private planes are based at one of the more than 14,000 small private airports across the county, many located near or within city limits.
Private flyers – both pilots and passengers – avoid long ticket lines, security screening, and the required early arrivals at the airport that are common in commercial aviation today.
Private pilots fly where and when they want, with minimal hassles and regulations, limited only by weather conditions and safety requirements. They can stay at destinations as for as long (or as short) a time as they like. Private planes can use large public airports (with some restrictions), small private airports, and even dirt or grass strips. They can fly day or night, according to the pilot’s whims.
Airplanes are designed and manufactured to supply years of safe flight if owners follow the required maintenance and inspection schedules. The average age of propeller aircraft (both single- and multi-engine) in 2016 was more than 40 years.
Personal space in a commercial airliner is non-existent, forcing close proximity to other stressed passengers. Overhead storage is limited, and passengers are increasingly exposed to violent encounters between flight personnel and passengers.
Private airplanes can be outfitted to meet the owner’s unique requirements, with plenty of luggage space and a choice of who and how many passengers are onboard.
Plane owners today can choose a new or used aircraft, powered by one or two piston or jet engines, with a wide choice of avionics (electronic equipment), cabin configurations, and passenger amenities. The options include a high or low wing configuration with wheels for land, skis for snow, or pontoons for water landings. Landing gear may be fixed or retractable, while variable-pitch propellers can be adjusted in-flight to increase blade pitch for power or economy.
Travel by private plane is impressive, a statement to the world that you are important. The Lear 25 was the plane du jour in the 1970s through 1980s, so commonly associated with oilmen and savings and loan executives that it was known as the “State Bird of Texas.”
Disadvantages of Private Plane Travel
Using a private aircraft is not for everyone, for reasons including:
1. Fear of Accidents
Private planes are more dangerous than commercial flights, according to data from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported by The New York Times. General aviation aircraft average nearly seven accidents per 100,000 hours of flight versus 0.16 accidents per 100,000 hours for commercial flights. That said, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) claims the private aviation accident rate is one-sixth the rate of automobile accidents as measured by miles traveled.
One benefit of flying is the lack of physical proximity to other aircraft. The required minimum separation between planes is 1,000 feet vertically and five nautical miles horizontally (one nautical mile equals 1.15 land miles). As a consequence, in-air collisions are rare.
By comparison, automobiles traveling at speeds of 70 mph in the same direction may be separated by only a few car lengths. Traffic going at a similar pace in the opposite direction are often separated by a few yards, regularly resulting in fatal head-on or side collisions. Practicing safe driving habits is not always enough to avoid the actions of others who share the road.
The majority of private aircraft accidents are due to pilot error, or making the wrong decision at the wrong time. Many times, the danger begins on the ground when the pilot omits a thorough pre-flight check, including the weather forecasts over the intended route. Over-confidence in one’s ability can lead to disaster in the sky. Taking proper precautions goes a long way toward preventing an accident.
Whether you own or rent a private plane, flying is expensive. Price per hour of flight escalates in direct proportion to the size, load capacity, speed, and comfort of the aircraft. As a general rule, multi-engine planes are more expensive than single-engines, and jets are more expensive than planes with piston engines.
Private plane travel is considerably more expensive than other alternatives (excluding the cost of the plane itself). Consider these numbers:
- Commercial Airline. Commercial air travel (on a Boeing 737-800 flying at 700 mph with 160 passengers) costs $0.02 per passenger mile.
- Automobile. The passenger cost per mile for a car with four passengers is $0.29, according to a 2015 AAA report.
- Private, Single-Piston-Engine Airplane. The cost per mile varies by the model of plane and the number of hours flown each year. For example, the fixed and operating costs of a single-piston-engine aircraft flying 100 hours each year are $187 per flight hour, according to the AOPA Hypothetical Operating Cost Calculation. Assuming an average speed of 170 mph with four passengers, the cost per passenger mile is $0.275.
- Business Jet. A popular business jet like a Cessna Citation with two pilots and six passengers flying 200 hours per year has a per passenger cost per mile of $1.40.
3. Weather Conditions
Snow, ice, and thunderstorms frequently ground commercial airlines and private planes. Private planes, lacking the expensive avionics of a commercial airliner and typically flown by less-experienced pilots, are especially subject to flight delays, cancellations, and extended stays to avoid stormy weather.
From time to time, I’ve stayed at a destination longer than planned due to bad weather. In some cases, I abandoned the plane and traveled by other means to a meeting, necessitating additional time and expense to retrieve the aircraft later. While inconvenient, safety is the first rule of a competent pilot.
A Scary Lesson Learned
One late summer day on my return from Lewisville, I flew into a thunderstorm over Little Rock, Arkansas. To my chagrin, I knew a storm was likely before I departed, but, foolishly confident in my plane and my piloting, I believed I could reach my destination ahead of the storm. I was wrong – almost fatally wrong. It was terrifying to be suddenly surrounded by torrential rain, lightning streaks, and booming thunder. The sky was pitch black and visibility almost nil. Water, driven by ferocious winds, leaked from the edges of the windshield into the cockpit.
Turbulence tossed my plane up and down a thousand feet at a time, banging my head against the ceiling of the aircraft on each downdraft. My seatbelt, clinched as tightly as possible, left bruises on my hips and chest. Using the radio was impossible as my hands fought to keep the wings level. I was sure the plane would crash. After about 10 minutes of terror, I reached open sky and safety. Surprisingly, the Cessna suffered no structural damages, but I never flew again if a storm was likely.
Pilot License vs. Hiring a Commercial Pilot
The majority of private planes, especially piston-driven propeller models, are piloted by non-professional pilots who either own or rent planes for their travel. Most business jets and turboprop planes are flown by commercial pilots. In addition to the proper license, private and commercial pilots must also have the appropriate class ratings and endorsements for the aircraft they fly.
Private Pilot License Requirements
Flying a single-prop, fixed-gear airplane requires less complicated mechanical expertise than driving a car (one of the reasons a 16-year-old can fly solo). However, learning flight safety and exercising good judgment comes through training and experience. Expect to spend $9,000 to $11,000 for the training necessary to earn your private pilot license. The average new pilot gets his certificate after 70 hours of flight time.
The requirements for a private pilot certificate (license) are:
- A third-class medical certificate
- A minimum of 40 hours of flight time, including 20 hours of instruction and 10 hours of solo flight
- Completion of FAA-approved ground school courses, ensuring you have basic knowledge of aerodynamics, weather, FAA regulations, principles of navigation, stall/spin awareness, and incident/accident reporting requirements
- Successful completion of a flight review by a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI)
A private license allows a pilot to carry non-paying passengers day or night up to an altitude of 18,000 feet. While a private license is adequate for recreational flying under visual flight rules (VFR), an instrument flight rating (IFR) will allow you to fly when inclement weather is likely.
Ratings & Endorsements
Ratings for multi-engine planes, instrument flying, seaplanes, and helicopters require additional hours of flight time and proven competence. CFIs issue endorsements after a student has completed training and demonstrated proficiency. Endorsements include:
- Tailwheel. Modern planes have tricycle landing gear, an innovation of the arrangement of wheels under the wings and tail of an aircraft. The two configurations have different landing and steering requirements.
- High-Performance. Aircraft with more than 200 horsepower fly faster than the typical planes piloted by private pilots and can be more dangerous to operate.
- Complex. Retractable landing gear, movable flaps, and controlled-pitch propellers require different operations from simple aircraft.
- High Altitude. Flying above 18,000 feet requires the use of oxygen systems, rapid decompression procedures, and can cause pilot health problems like hypoxia (or the lack of oxygen in the blood).
- Airplane Type. Large aircraft (those with takeoff weights over 12,550 pounds), turbojet-powered aircraft, and other specific aircraft designated by the FAA require appropriate endorsements for a pilot (or copilot) before flying.
Many private pilots pursue an “instrument flight rating” (IFR) that allows them to fly in poor visibility such as rain, low clouds, and heavy haze. The rating for IFR requires 40 to 50 hours of IFR flight, but an IFR endorsement is essential for safe trips during inclement weather. Expect to spend an additional $15,000 each for flight time and instructor fees to attain IFR or multi-engine ratings.
Flying With a Commercial Pilot
A commercial pilot license requires 250 hours of flight time and allows its holder to carry passengers or property for hire. Though similar to the training for a private pilot, the standards for a commercial certificate are more rigorous. According to the AOPA, “you [the student] do a lot of the same things while working on your commercial [pilot certificate] that you do for the private [-] you just have to do them better.”
Commercial pilots include those who are employed by major and regional airlines, as well as private jet pilots and other independent pilots. John Chesire, a retired commercial airline pilot, claims private jet pilots are often more qualified than airline pilots, even though they lack the flight hours of the latter.
Private commercial pilots earn either monthly salaries or hourly rates based on their flight hours. Pilots of larger and more complex aircraft (jets being the most complex) make between $40,000 and $140,000 annually, according to pay data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In cases where the passenger rents but does not pilot the plane, the costs of the pilot may be included in the hourly fee for the aircraft or negotiated separately with the pilot.
Since flight safety is directly proportional to a pilot’s training, experience, and practices, verify your proposed pilot’s license by checking with the FAA or the pilots database at Landings.com. A review of the pilot’s logbook is also prudent.
Selecting the Optimum Aircraft
Few airplanes are designed to meet every flyer’s needs. To ensure you choose the right aircraft, consider:
- Expected Use. Are you primarily a recreational flyer, limited to short hops around your home area? Will you use the plane for business trips? If so, how often and over what distances?
- Typical Flight Conditions. Are you IFR-rated? Will you be flying at high altitudes, in heavy weather, or regularly at night?
- Amount of Airtime. Will you fly 50, 100, 200, or more hours each year? Will you be the only pilot? Many experts say 200 flight hours annually is the minimum flight time you should put in before owning your own plane.
- Passenger and Load Limits. Will you typically fly alone or with others? Will you carry heavy loads? Does roominess matter to you? Will you need long runways?
- Affordability. In addition to the initial purchase price and upgrades, plane owners incur fixed monthly costs of flight insurance, inspections, hangar fees, data subscription costs for avionics, and unexpected maintenance. Altogether, the monthly fixed costs run several thousand dollars. The operating costs of flying – such as fuel, landing fees, and airport taxes – are additional.
- Other Responsibilities. Do you have the capability, time, and interest to perform minor maintenance and cleaning? Will you fly often enough to maintain your competence as a pilot?
Ownership & Use Options
You don’t need to own a plane to enjoy private flights. Flyers often choose to rent, lease, or share the costs of an airplane due to the higher costs of complex, multi-engine aircraft and jets (a used jet, which 85% of buyers select, starts at $3 million with annual expenses of $500,000+). Private aviation consultant Richard Ziskind told Fortune magazine, “I can’t even see, today, why a business guy needs to have his own aircraft. For the majority, ad hoc charter is sufficient, and, if they owned a plane, it would bankrupt them.”
There are a variety of options to access a private plane, whether you’re a pilot or not, including:
Finance companies provide loans for new and used aircraft from single-pistons to light jets. Even helicopters and the warbird your grandfather flew in World War II can be financed. Expect to pay 15% to 20% of the purchase price as a down payment, with a maximum term of 20 years.
According to the AOPA calculation model, the terms to purchase a 1978 Beechcraft King Air 200 for $400,000 are estimated to be $80,000 down and 15 years of payments at approximately $2,750 per month. Actual terms would depend on the condition of the plane and the credit of the borrower. In addition to the monthly payments, the owner would continue to pay the aircraft’s fixed and operating costs.
While leasing is a common way for major airlines to acquire planes, it’s not common in general aviation. However, private aircraft can be leased just like automobiles, the advantage being a lower out-of-pocket cost and use of an asset “off the books.”
Leasing avoids the complexity of depreciation accounting and the recapture of any gains on the sale required by the new tax law (see below for more on this law). Lessees can opt for an operating lease under which they return the aircraft to the lessor after a period of time or a capital lease that transfers the equipment to the lessee at term for a bargain purchase price.
Lessees may be asked to maintain a reserve with the lessor to ensure ongoing maintenance and insurance coverage. Lessees are also responsible for all fixed and operating costs of the aircraft.
Three of us shared the costs of our plane as co-owners and tenants-in-common with equal rights and liabilities. Being long-term friends, we had few problems resolving schedule conflicts or upgrade decisions. Our agreement included provisions to handle the ownership interest in the event of death, loss of employment, or financial difficulties. Fortunately, none of the circumstances occurred before we sold the plane a decade later.
Sharing the costs of a plane was a good experience for everyone. Our success was due to extended, honest discussions and a subsequent written agreement, as well as trying to anticipate every possible contingency that might arise during the agreement period. More importantly, we had previously built a reservoir of personal trust between each of us.
If you elect to pursue a joint-ownership arrangement, consult an attorney and an accountant to be sure you understand each owner’s rights and responsibilities before you purchase a plane together.
Instead of buying a plane, a fractional owner purchases a share of a plane (1/12, 1/8, 1/4, or 1/3) that is usually managed by an independent company who ensures proper maintenance and care of the aircraft. The management company is responsible for the scheduling of the plane by the fractional owners. Each fractional owner pays a proportional cost of the purchase, the monthly fixed costs, and a fee for each hour of flight. Many sponsors of fractional ownership programs maintain a fleet of planes.
While a fractional share of an aircraft is less expensive than sole ownership, the tradeoff is convenience. For example, the plane might not be available due to use by other owners. Programs typically require a five-year commitment. Companies like Flexjet suggest fractional ownership for those who fly at least 50 hours annually.
Membership programs range from local flight clubs who own one or more propeller planes meant for leisure flyers to large, sophisticated programs with multiple types and models of aircraft available. Members may be required to make a cash deposit, pay a one-time initiation fee, and pay monthly membership dues plus a price per flight hour based on the airplane.
Sample membership programs include XOJET and WheelsUp. Some membership programs have transitioned into jet cards (described below), eliminating initiation and monthly fees while continuing to sell blocks of flight time on specific aircraft types.
Pre-Purchased Blocks of Flight Time
More than 30 companies currently offer programs commonly referred to as jet cards, which guarantee a specific hourly price for flights on private jets, turboprops, and piston aircraft. Flyers purchase particular blocks of time (with 10- to 25-hour minimums) on a plane or fleet of planes for a pre-determined hourly rate. For example, the price of a 25-hour block of time for a light jet Citation Encore is $149,900 through NetJets.
Trip Rental (a.k.a. Chartering)
Chartering a plane on a trip-by-trip basis is the traditional method for part-time private plane use. Customers can select the aircraft they need for a specific trip based on factors like the number of passengers, distance, and schedule.
You can expect service inconsistencies, less convenience, and higher costs with chartering than other options, but chartering is ideal for those who fly less than 25 hours per year.
By the Seat
Companies such as Surf Air, JetSmarter, and JetSuiteX offer flights on private jet airplanes on a per-passenger basis. As with a commercial flight, you’ll have to travel on a set schedule with people you don’t know. However, private planes have more passenger room than commercial flights, use less congested airports (often closer to your home or office than the airports commercial airlines use), and often require only a 15-minute arrival before takeoff.
Costs per passenger are often less than a first-class or business ticket on a large airline. Some companies offer memberships with unlimited flights as low as $4,000 a month. Unfortunately, routes and destinations are pre-determined and limited. For example, Surf Air currently serves only 10 destinations in California and one in Nevada.
The Impact of the New Tax Law
Private airplane use is a hot-button topic for many citizens, who argue that politicians and the wealthy misuse the tax code to take advantage of the privileges of their jobs for private purposes. For several years, legislators have attempted to clarify the distinction between the business and personal use of assets like airplanes, boats, and corporate retreats.
The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act attempts to eliminate unfair perks by adding five new provisions to the previous tax treatment of aircraft ownership:
- Bonus Depreciation. For purchases of new or used aircraft between September 27, 2017 and December 31, 2022, taxpayers can elect to deduct 100% of the cost in the year of purchase, excluding entertainment and recreational use of the plane. The bonus depreciation drops 20% each year from 2023 to 2026. Bonus depreciation applies to improvements and upgrades as well as the base price of the plane.
- Elimination of Entertainment Write-Offs. The previous law allowed for the deduction of entertainment expenses directly related to a business purpose. No such deductions are allowed under the new law. For example, flying executives in corporate jets to a company retreat is no longer deductible.
- Elimination of Aircraft Costs as a Personal Business Expense. This affects individual plane owners who deduct airplane-associated costs on their personal 1040 tax forms. The law eliminated numerous miscellaneous itemized deductions, including employee business expenses.
- Elimination of Tax-Free, Like-Kind Exchanges for Aircraft. Before the passing of the law, an airplane owner could defer any tax on gains from the sale of the plane as long as another airplane was acquired to replace it. Under the new law, any gain on the sale will be taxed as ordinary income if replaced by another plane.
- Confirmation That Owners Will Pay the Fuel Tax. Before the law, there was confusion over whether an aircraft management company was to charge clients for the non-commercial aviation fuel tax or the Federal Transportation Excise Tax (the ticket tax). The law eliminates confusion over this issue.
In 2017, four students demonstrated a personal aircraft (the “flying car”) that may be the prototype for a real-world realization of the travel enjoyed by George Jetson. As ground travel becomes more congested and commercial airlines seek to cram more passengers into their planes, the possibility of moving freely and safely through the air on one’s own terms seems more and more appealing.
As evidenced by today’s pilotless drones and driverless cars, technology is advancing at an ever-increasing speed. The question of widespread personal aircraft use is not “if” but “when.”
Are you ready to dump the large airlines and bustling airports for private flights that fit your schedule and pocketbook? Are flying cars in our future?