Like many other consultants, Mark McKibben spends a lot of time traveling by air to meet clients. But when McKibben flies, he sits in the pilot's seat.
He recently took off from Van Nuys Airport to meet a client in Scottsdale, Ariz. It took two and a half hours each way, while a commercial flight would have been only an hour and 20 minutes. But by avoiding Los Angeles International Airport, he wiped out the security checks, baggage pickup and above all, the freeway trip.
"It was actually faster on my plane," McKibben said.
He represents a growing cadre of executives and entrepreneurs who fly solo to avoid the annoyances of commercial airlines. According to the National Business Aviation Association, business trips in single-seat planes have increased 20 percent since 2001.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the number of licensed private pilots increased 4.2 percent last year. The FAA predicts the number of hours flown by self-piloted planes will increase about 3 percent per year until 2025, with an especially "strong growth in business aviation."
"After 9/11, everything changed for general aviation," said Lee Dunayer, a senior portfolio manager at UBS Financial Services Inc. in Beverly Hills. Dunayer flies his own plane out of Whiteman Air Station in Pacoima when he travels to meet with high-net worth clients up and down the West Coast. "The inconvenience factor increased, so business traffic picked up exponentially. That's why Warren Buffett bought into Executive Jet."
McKibben, who runs his telecom consultancy from his home in Chatsworth, flies out of Van Nuys.
"I can get up, have breakfast, be at my destination by lunch, meet and fly home by dinnertime without the stress of commercial flying," he said. "You set your own schedule. If you get into an extended meeting, you don't have to worry about missing your flight."
The cost of piloting your own propeller aircraft is certainly not cheap. Aviation fuel costs a dollar or two more per gallon than car gasoline. There's the cost of the plane, plus storage charges and the fee for a required annual inspection.
There are about 5,700 public airports in the United States open to anyone with a pilot's license, according to Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association in Washington, D.C. In addition, there are thousands of private airstrips that accommodate small aircraft. By comparison, commercial airlines serve fewer than 500 airports. Private pilots can fly directly to a landing strip near their final destination and avoid the hassle of having to change planes at a hub.
Once McKibben reaches the ground, his client or vendor usually sends a car to pick him up. If not, he rents a car or calls a taxi.
Dunayer makes personal visits to his high-net worth individuals as far away as Seattle. The private plane isn't meant to impress them.
"But it shows that I make the effort to get to them," he said. "It's more of a service thing."
McKibben said he likes to treat his clients to some flight time.
"Every chance I get, I take my clients for a ride," he said. "If we meet in San Diego, I'll take them over to Catalina for lunch."
Greg Romano of the Pilots Association figures it's more cost efficient to take a commercial jet on trips of more than 600 miles. But if the trip involves three or more people, the private plane easily beats the airline. Multiple stopovers are also an issue. Dunayer once hit seven cities over a few days; an itinerary like that would've been more expensive on commercial flights.
But those savings come at a price.
The simplest propeller plane starts at $55,000 or so. A deluxe craft with the latest avionics costs about $250,000, and a turboprop can run over $1 million.
Many executive pilots own a plane, but rentals are available for about $125 to $135 per flight hour. Owners pay for tie-down space if they store the plane outside, or hangar space. The fees vary depending on the airport. Van Nuys charges $750 a month for tie-downs and double that for hangars. Annual inspections are required by the FAA and cost $1,000 to $3,000.
Prospective aviators should plan to spend $8,000 to $10,000 toward the cost of classes and fees for obtaining their pilot license.
"That's not cheap, but if you look at it as recreation, it's on par with golfing or boating or skiing in Mammoth," Romano said. "And the cost of learning to fly can be amortized over your career."
There's also the adventure value.
McKibben likens the experience to driving at 150 miles per hour without the worry of a traffic ticket. "It's a lot fun," he said.
"Yes, it excites me," Dunayer said. "I'm excited about going somewhere new and being up in the sky. From an emotional standpoint, I dream about it."
Passion for flight
Both pilots agree that their motive for flying isn't calculated in dollars and cents. They both grew up with a fascination for flying and found a way to pursue it in the context of their careers.
"I've always loved all things aviation related," said McKibben, who got his pilot license in 1998. "At that point in my life, I had enough income to support what turned out to be an expensive habit."
In addition to business, McKibben flies for the Civil Air Patrol in Van Nuys. Last year he participated in the search for Steve Fossett, the millionaire adventurer pilot who disappeared in Nevada and was never found.
Dunayer got his license at 17, but couldn't fly consistently until his business justified the use of a plane. Now he combines efficiency with his enthusiasm for aviation.
"There is a passion involved," he said. "And that's good because people who are passionate pay attention and are among the safest, most careful people I know."
Although Dunayer admits to a few brushes with danger, he describes flying as "a heck of a lot safer than the L.A. highway system," and he doesn't see any difference between commercial aviation and small-plane travel.
He tells how several years ago on a return trip from Provo, Utah, he stopped at an airfield in North Las Vegas. As he taxied out to the runway, a powerful headwind struck his aircraft. "Suddenly I found myself 40 feet in the air," he recalled.
He managed to fly around and reland the plane until the weather stabilized.
But the next day, Dunayer talked to his brother who was aboard a commercial jet landing at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas at the exact time he tried to take off. The wind had slammed the airliner "into the ground so hard, my brother thought the plane was going to break in half," Dunayer said. "So the lesson is there's not a lot of difference in turbulence between light aircraft and large ones."
Romano of the Pilots Association predicts that the trend toward self-piloting will continue.
"We see no relief for the delays on airlines," he said. "Businesspeople are looking for alternatives to travel more quickly and efficiently."
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