Tired of fight delays? Buy your own plane.
Cheaper, safer, and smaller aircraft will broaden travel option

Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel
By James Fallows, Public Affairs Press, 254 pages, $37.95


Few people know the horrors of air travel better than businessmen. The waiting, flight changes, lost luggage, rubber chicken dinners and cramped seats, combine to make flying a miserable experience even when things go well. But things don't always go well.

Add an overloaded system, teeming with delays, and huge premium that airlines charge for last minute bookings, and it's pretty clear that the air transportation industry is not responding well to consumer demand.

In the U.S., the problems are so bad, that according to time and motion studies conducted by NASA, on most voyages of less than 500 miles it is faster to drive than it is to take a plane.

Think about it. When you fly, you have to book your flight, arrange to get the ticket, drive to the airport, and check your baggage. For many destinations, direct flights are impossible, so a connecting flight is required. At the final stop you have to rent a car or find a taxi. And because of traffic and airline delays and flight re-schedulings, you've got to build in long margins of safety at each step in the process. With a car you just drive form door to door.

"(The airlines) have put air travel distinctly out of phase with the economy as a whole," writes James Fallows in his new book Free Flight, From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel. "Since at least the early nineties, the trend in most businesses has been toward on-demand, always-available products and services that fit the customer's schedule rather than the reverse."

While the airlines have made considerable progress in the last quarter century reducing costs-per-mile traveled and moving passengers, demand has grown even faster. To accommodate this increase, more airlines began to operate using the "hub and spoke" system, where large volumes of traffic are routed between huge "hub" airports in cities such as Dallas, Atlanta and O'Hare, and then re-routed onto a connecting "spoke" flights to the ultimate destination.

Although traffic volumes are up, the flight transfers often mean long waiting times in connecting airports. In fact one of the biggest growth industries is airport restaurants which have sprung up to accommodate these waiting passengers. In San Francisco's airport alone there are 27 of them.

Ironically, while most of the major hub airports are saturated, there are thousands of smaller airports dotting the country with shorter runways that are relatively unused.

According to Mr. Fallows - a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, and amateur pilot - these smaller airfields could form the basis of a democratization in air travel, giving many consumers the ability to fly where they want, when they want.

Several innovative companies Eclipse Aviation and Cirrus Design, are getting into the small aircraft business re-igniting a market abandoned by Cessna Aircraft Company two decades ago when it got out of the business. They are launching new models such as the Cirrus's SR-20, and Eclipse's planned 500 series, which are designed for personal use, and to serve as "air taxis" for business travelers.

The problem with the small aircraft industry in the 1070s - as it so often is in the U.S. - was tort law, which forced aircraft manufacturers to assume liability for defects in the plane decades after the plane was built. That meant that manufacturers had to set aside huge reserves to deal with potential future claims, which were impossible to evaluate. At one point, between 20 and 30 per cent of small plane cost were due to manufacturer's liability insurance.

But several things have changed since then. For one, U.S. laws have been amended and the duration of a manufacturer's liability for small aircraft defects have been capped at 18 years. But more important, technological advances -- such global positioning systems, smaller jet engines, and computerized auto pilot systems -- have dramatically improved the speed, range and safety of small aircraft technology.

Demand for both these aircraft is high, with waiting times in excess of two years, for the Cirrus models, and even longer for the Eclipse planes, which are not scheduled to begin shipping until 2003.

Although the cost of these planes (Cirrus's SR-20 starts at US $170,000, and the Eclipse 500 at $837,000) is far lower than the cost of a conventional private jet, their high prices will hardly allow for a democratization in air travel.

But they may re-ignite a dormant industry, and give afflicted business travelers new options.



Peter Diekmeyer is a Montreal-based business writer. He can be reached at peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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