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The Real "Rush" Hour
by James Wynbrandt | Photography by Diana Kassir

Oh, paradox of airplanes. We can’t wait for weekends so we can take off and fly somewhere, anywhere. Yet come Monday, when we really need to get someplace – to work – the airplane sits idle.

Photo by Diana Kassir Photo by Diana Kassir
Photo by Diana Kassir Photo by Diana Kassir
What pilot, measuring progress to work by inches amid a sea of autos, hasn’t thought, “If only I could fly to work….” Well, maybe you can. The fact is, private aircraft are absurdly underused as commuting tools. Can commuting by air work for you?

We talked to aerial commuters and financial and legal experts to get insights that will help you make this important, life-altering decision.

The primary reason commuters consider using the plane instead of the car is to save time. So aerial commuting can make a lot of sense in places with massive traffic congestion and plenty of airports, like the Los Angeles basin.
     
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Rick Scivicque, of Big Bear, Calif., began commuting to his job in Los Angeles in his V-tailed Bonanza about four years ago, cutting a two-hour-plus commute into a half-hour joyride.

“The biggest thing is the convenience and the enjoyment, ” he said. “What surprised me most of all is how much fun it is.”

  The Pre-Commute Checklist

Checkbox Commuting by air is not weekend flying. VFR-only pilots need not apply. Skills must be top-notch. “When you’re going to do something like this, you’ve got to make sure you can make it even when the weather’s not right,” said Scivicque, from Big Bear.
Checkbox Regardless of skill level, there will be days when the weather eliminates flying as an option. All pilot commuters readily acknowledge it. You will need alternative transportation for such times; in other words, don’t dump your car.
Checkbox Your aircraft must be maintained in top condition; try to schedule annuals at the least disruptive times and have them completed as quickly as safety and thoroughness allow.
Checkbox If you’re like many air commuters, be ready to put a lot of money into your airplane. Many have installed state-of-the-art panels and creature comforts due to their heavy reliance and use of the aircraft. As Kennedy, the Duke owner said, “The bottom line is, if I didn’t have this flying passion, I’d be a rich man.”
Click here to Download a PDF of the checklist so you can print it out and carry it with you.

Scivicque flies into Hawthorne Municipal Airport, where he keeps a car to drive the final few miles to his job. Obviously, the closer your airport is to your workplace, the more sense it makes to commute by plane, but having a second car for shuttling between a destination airport and the office is a common tactic among aerial commuters.

Pilots who live in geographically isolated areas are also prime candidates for an aerial commute. An executive of a Boston-area software company, who commutes daily from his home in Nantucket in a Mooney 231, says several of the island’s residents travel to work this way.

“On the average morning, there are three
or four of us in a conga line” at Nantucket Memorial Airport, said this pilot, who prefers to remain anonymous.

The door-to-door commute via Hanscom Field near Boston takes him about an hour in VFR weather; going by ferry and car would take six hours, and using commercial commuter flights would be prohibitively expensive, he says.

Which brings us to the subject of costs. First the bad news: For the typical non-business-owning commuter, there are no deductions or other tax benefits you can claim for using your plane instead of the car.

“Commuting is always a personal cost, and is not deductible,” said Lou Meiners, a lawyer with the Advocate Aircraft Taxation Co. in Indianapolis.

On the plus side, since it’s personal time, there are no liability issues affecting the employer, eliminating one major source of objections or prohibitions against employees commuting by general aviation aircraft.

The good news for any would-be air commuter who’s ever thought about starting a business on the side: “If [the pilot] has a second business, and operates out of an office at home and it’s bona fide, then [the pilot] will be traveling between two businesses,” and thus eligible for deducting the costs involved in commuting, said Meiners. “That’s a very common practice, and it’s perfectly allowable.”

But even without tax breaks there are ways to reduce the expenses of commuting by air. Many commuting pilots defray expenses by organizing “plane pools,” sharing costs among all passengers. Obviously, there are significant expenses the owner shoulders alone, such as maintenance and the cost of the airplane. But once the numbers are crunched, another factor needs to be considered, and it’s perhaps the most important of all.

Your Quality of Life
The pilot-commuters we spoke with uniformly report taking to the skies has had major, far-reaching positive impacts.

“It’s amazing how much more awake you are when you get home at the end of the day when you fly,” said Mike Dolphin, who commutes from his home in Pittsfield, Mass. to White Plains Airport (HPN) in New York in his Cessna 210 every day. “The physical wear and tear is gone.”

Dolphin has an ideal situation for aerial commuting: He owns the Avitat Westchester FBO at HPN. But the difference in how flying makes you feel about commuting may even be enough to trump considerations such as costs, time and proximity to airports.

Dan Hoagland and his wife live 50 miles of sparsely traveled road from their electrical contracting company in Fort Wayne, Ind. Too close to commute by air? Not with their Enstrom F-28 helicopter, which they operate from their home.

“It was our dream to do this,” Dan said. “A lot of it really is quality of life. We don’t have to be on the road with some of the idiot drivers.”

The Hoaglands have a 10-minute walk to their office after they land; city ordinances require approval for a helipad, and the Hoagland’s application was narrowly denied. The lesson here: Any would-be aerial commuter thinking about using a helicopter, or flying in and out of a backyard airstrip, should become familiar with local ordinances first.

New Possibilities
There’s another important set of issues that should be considered, dealing not with what is, but what could be: Where could you live, if instead of being limited by how far you could drive to work, you expanded your horizons to places within aerial commuting distance of your job? And what new employment opportunities might you be able to pursue if you looked in places within easy reach of your home by plane, but out of the question for driving?

Commuting by Aircraft: The Plane Facts
One hundred years after the invention of powered flight, it’s still easy to be an aviation pioneer: Just use an airplane to commute.

According to the 2000 census, more than 126 million Americans 16 and older engage in a daily commute to work. We travel by car, truck, bus, taxi and van; we ride the rails aboard commuter trains, trolleys, streetcars and subways; float on ferryboats; and brave the elements on motorcycles, bicycles and foot.

The Census Bureau tabulated the numbers down to the single digit of commuters who used each of these modes of transportation. So how many traveled by airplane? Not enough for aircraft even to show up as a form of transportation. And no organization bothers to track aerial commuting activity, either. (That must make those 44,106 ferryboat riders, the smallest category of tabulated commuters, feel smug.)

Let’s face it, for everyday commuting, private aircraft are so far below the radar we might as well be in hell. “I’m not sure we’ve ever delved into commuting by air,” said Kevin Luten of the Association for Commuter Transportation in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding creative solutions to commuting problems. “It’s not something that comes up in our world very often; it’s kind of a novel concept.”

This situation should be cause for concern among the entire flying community. According to the FAA, as of the end of 2002 there were 158,300 “personal use” aircraft of all types. That’s almost four times the total number of ferryboat commuters, and more than twice as many as the 72,713 people who ride streetcars and trolleys, and even more than the 142,424 motorcycling commuters. What the aviation community needs is a “Fly a Plane to Work” day, when we saddle up each of those personal use aircraft and put them to work getting to work. Then it will be impossible for transportation experts to categorically ignore aviation’s potential contributions as a viable commuting alternative.


Patrick Kennedy, who has a construction company in San Diego, was able to develop his business in the financially fertile San Francisco area by using his Beech Duke to commute from his home to his job sites. He and his foremen fly up Monday mornings and come back Thursday evenings. The flights take about three hours, versus the seven it would take to get to the job sites via the airlines, and it saves money.

     
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“This was a solution to a problem,” Kennedy says of his aerial commuting, “and this problem exists in a lot of places.”

Consider how an expanded choice of housing options might play out in the real world.

Say you live in the suburbs in a $500,000 home and spend a minimum of one hour and fifteen minutes commuting each way every day. The distance traveled isn’t as important as the time needed; the slower the traffic and the less distance traveled, the more options are afforded by an equal time spent commuting by air.

Now let’s say there’s an airport within 15 minutes driving time of your workplace. We’ll assume your new home will be within 15 minutes of an airport, as well. Let’s assume 10 minutes for a preflight and five minutes for taxiing. Now we’re down to half an hour of flight time to keep total commuting time equal. Assume the aircraft cruises at 130 kts. You will cover about 75 statute miles during that half hour.

Draw a circle with a 75 miles radius around the destination airport. Check out the communities around airports within this circle. Chances are housing prices will be significantly lower than in the urban area our commuter is vacating.

Let’s assume a 20 percent reduction in housing costs—which for most urban areas is not unusual. The home that cost $500,000 in the suburbs costs $400,000 here, and the difference is enough to buy a well-equipped four-place aircraft and still have money in your wallet. Or if you already own an airplane, you can still buy a $500,000 home, but one that is no doubt more spacious because of its increased distance from a metropolitan area.

If you’re willing to spend more than a half hour flying, the possibilities expand exponentially.

And for those who already own an airplane, remember the fixed costs of ownership such as Insurance, annual inspection, tie down, the bank note and so on, are the greatest. Fuel costs are comparatively moderate. Total per-hour operating costs will decline dramatically if the plane is used for commuting. Looking ahead, aerial commuting may become more feasible; with the advent of WAAS, thousands of airports will have the precision instrument approaches essential to be commuter-capable. And new in-cockpit weather products like NexRad make our aircraft safer and more reliable in inclement weather.

Big Payoff
Whatever the rigors, the upside of commuting by air often justifies the effort. “When we had the solar flares,” said Dolphin, recalling a recent flight home from work, “well, you can’t imagine what the Northern Lights looked like at night from 7,500 feet. Absolutely one of the most amazing displays I’ve ever seen.”

On the other hand, you may not look at the end of the week in the same way. “I really long for the weekend when I don’t have to get in the airplane,” said the Nantucket air commuter. “It’s sort of like getting your driver’s license at 16; you quickly learn it’s for transportation.”

This article was prepared with assistance from Michael Loomis of Loomis & Falls, LLP, a law firm in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, focusing on aviation law.


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