Aviation lawyer Greg Winton charges by the hour, including time in transit, so his clients actually prefer that he jump into his airplane for a trip to their office.
A trained flight instructor and qualified commercial pilot, Winton commutes to business meetings at least twice a month in his six-seat Piper Lance.
Business aviation is a slowly growing trend among small companies, according to the National Business Aviation Association.
The popularity of corporate flying rises and falls with the economy. After the market failed in late 2008, flight hours declined by about 40 percent, NBAA spokesman Dan Hubbard said.
Since early 2010, NBAA has seen a gradual turnaround, Hubbard said, but estimated hours flown still sit about 25 percent below 2007.
The General Aviation Manufacturers Association calculated 2,971 registered active general aviation aircraft in Maryland in 2009, about 300 more planes than registered in the previous two years.
General aviation is on a downward trend, GAMA Communications Director Katie Pribyl said. While there are some signs of recovery, the business of flight is “not out of the weeds yet,” she said.
Benefits of small- business aviation
Boni Caldeira sells airplanes, so he regards flying himself to client meetings as a company demonstration.
Some potential customers who join Frederick-based Caldeira on business end up buying planes for their companies, he said.
Caldeira, a regional sales manager with Cirrus Design Corp., flies a company plane to neighboring states, when flying commercial would be inconvenient.
“For a short trip, it’s really annoying to have to put up with … layovers and fewer direct flights,” he said.
New Era Custom Design and Cabinet Works Inc. President John Gage uses his Beechcraft Baron twin-engine piston at least once a week for business travel.
This past week, Gage flew to Princeton, N.J., and Philadelphia for client meetings and site consultations. He can usually find an airport 10 to 15 minutes from his final destination, and often uses the airport’s courtesy car service or rents a vehicle for the day.
“It’s a huge time-saver,” Gage said. “I like to be home at night.”
Convenience is a draw for many small businesses.
“I’ll fly to Ithaca, N.Y., to get some business done, then fly to Pittsburgh, and I’ll be home for dinner,” Caldeira said.
Commercial airlines offer limited service to upstate New York, he said. “There is no train that goes there. The bus takes forever. It’s six hours to drive.”
Instead of landing at larger airports like Dulles International or Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall, pilots can touch down in Frederick, he said.
“From a local economy standpoint, the more businesses that choose to travel privately, the better for the local area.”
The Frederick Municipal Airport is not known as a flight commuter hub, but the option is available.
“At the end of the day, it’s an airport with a runway and fuel and services. There is no reason why that can’t be done,” Airport Manager Kevin Daugherty said.
Pilots can store planes at the airport for a day, as Gage used to do, but that is rare. Few people can afford the cost of fuel or the aircraft itself, Daugherty said.
Once a new airport control tower opens next year, Daugherty expects to attract more business operators.
About 17,000 business aviation planes are operated by about 15,000 individuals or companies in the U.S, according to NBAA. That number has increased incrementally, Hubbard said, from about 15,000 planes in 2004.
Costs ground businesses in recession
Some companies purchase fleets of wheeled vehicles for travel; others are drawn to advantages of flight.
A business might look at productivity when considering an aircraft purchase, Hubbard said.
“A company might say, ‘Well, the plane was instrumental in helping us land this deal/client/customer. We were able to respond to a customer’s inquiry immediately. Could we have done that with a car?'”
New Era’s work is largely limited to the Washington area, but employees sometimes get to pile into Gage’s six-seater for out-of-town installations. Piloting his plane saves the company time and expenses, Gage said.
“It means a lot to clients to know that I can be there on short notice, to work out problems (or) check out field conditions,” he said.
Winton calculates that his business trips cost about $200 per hour for fuel and maintenance costs.
General aviation costs are usually computed by the hour, Pribyl said. Cost-per-mile varies greatly depending on the model of airplane.
According to Business & Commercial Aviation magazine, 2010 per-mile fuel costs for a 600-mile trip might equal about $2.37 for a single turbine engine Cessna Caravan, close to $2.70 for a twin-turboprop Beechcraft King Air and about $2.10 per mile for a light jet.
Factoring in the purchase of a plane, aviation is not a cheap option. But small-business pilots find it expedient.
“This way, I am in the air within five to seven minutes from starting my engine,” Winton said. “I never have to take off my shoes and belt.”
The future of business aviation is uncertain, according to NBAA, but Hubbard mentioned some factors that could drive growth.
As business moves faster and becomes more competitive, the marketplace looks to expand opportunities, he said, and small airplanes can make companies more nimble and competitive.
Also, during the recession, commercial airlines cut service to some areas, Hubbard said.
“A business airplane may not be only the prudent option, but may be the only option.”