Private Plane Travel Isn’t Always About Luxury
March 4, 2013
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  • By Anne Wallace Allen

    There has always been something incongruous about traveling for business in the company of people who are traveling for pleasure. When I set up my laptop to work in an airport lounge on a layover, I’m adrift in a jumble of humanity: families with small kids, gaggles of high school athletes, guys lugging snowboards or surfboards.

    Every once in a while there’s a sock-clad person asleep in a nearby plastic seat. Under those conditions, it’s hard to concentrate.

    While the likelihood of plummeting to earth in a fireball is declining (nobody has died in a commercial air crash in the United States in four years) the struggle to avoid arm-to-arm contact with an oversize stranger in the adjacent seat appears to be on the rise.

    With this in mind, I set out to learn how the other half lives, the half (or perhaps the 1 percent) who fly their own small planes, fly in a company plane or charter a plane when it’s time for business trips.

    I was curious to know when it becomes worthwhile to take your own plane. Here’s what I found: It depends.

    Not surprisingly, the most important factors are time and money. Nobody is going to claim you can save money by taking a private plane except in special cases, such as when eight people from the same company all attend the same meeting in a hard-to-reach place like Missoula, Mont.

    With the number of direct flights to and from Boise declining, it can make sense to make your day trip to Missoula on a private plane, says Phil Winters, a vice president at the Boise-based Western Aircraft. He estimates it would cost about $4,000 to fly to Missoula and back in the same day in a private charter.

    It only makes sense if there are eight of you. Then, it’s $500 apiece – not far from what you would pay to travel on a commercial flight. Not only would you save time, and connections in other cities, but you also could leave your shoes and belt on for the entire journey.

    One of my friends has his own plane and often flies between Boise and his customers in eastern Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington. It makes sense in his case, because driving to any of those places would eat up an entire day. It helps that he enjoys flying and pilots his plane as a hobby as well.

    Then there’s MWI Veterinary Supply, Inc., which sends executives all around the country. Because the destinations are often Chicago and East Coast airports like LaGuardia, MWI’s fliers always choose commercial. A private plane just wouldn’t make sense.

    The Boise-based Winco, which has 80-something grocery stores around the West, does keep a plane at the Boise airport. It’s cost-effective if at least four executives are using it to get to the same meeting, spokesman Michael Reed told me.

    Real estate and land broker John Knipe, who sells ranches and other large properties, says it’s valuable for him to travel around the region in his private plane. It cuts down on travel time and allows him to show his customers the properties from the sky.

    There are no easy answers here. But the market could be telling us something. Western Aircraft, which started its charter business 11 years ago, had its best year in 2012. Winters attributes the increase to a few quirks of the market right now, such as the increase in traffic to the oilfields of North Dakota. It could also have something to do with the economy, which is slowly returning to strength.

    He’s not ready to credit the disappearance of Boise’s direct flights to nearby cities, though he said, “It probably has a bearing.

    “It’s interesting timing,” he said.

    Anne Wallace Allen is managing editor of the Idaho Business Review.