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A couple of people flying a small business’ small airplane introduced me to the utility in business aviation many years ago… decades back- actually. My experience left me feeling that the simple utility of the private company plane was the luxury often mentioned in the same sentence with ‘jets’ back then. It felt to me that no greater luxury existed than access to a private plane to fly from where you were to where you ...

Dave Higdon   |   1st June 2009
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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Small Business Lift:

Utilitarian air support for small business.

A couple of people flying a small business’ small airplane introduced me to the utility in business aviation many years ago… decades back- actually. My experience left me feeling that the simple utility of the private company plane was the luxury often mentioned in the same sentence with ‘jets’ back then.

It felt to me that no greater luxury existed than access to a private plane to fly from where you were to where you needed to be- freed from the entanglements of highway travel or commercial air carriage. Not until some years later did a truly luxuriously appointed airplane expose me to the mode finished at a higher level - but even at the end of that lovely experience- the airplane of my first experience accomplished no less than that multi-million-dollar leather-and-finewood-finished business jet.

The first provided a utilitarian ride; the second a similar experience with added benefits. In both cases I was able to work a bit en route and accomplished trips in times possible by neither commercial aircraft nor surface conveyance. But it was the first that adheres closest to the reality of business aircraft as a useful utility player for thousands of small businesses. Consider these facts from 2005:

• Piston-powered prop planes flew 17.8 million hours – 40 percent or 7.1 million hours for business-related transportation; about 2.3 million hours were flown for corporate and utility needs;
• Propjet-powered aircraft were flown 73 percent of their 3.9 million hours for corporate and utility work- with 16 percent devoted to business travel.

The fleet includes many fine examples of piston-prop and propjet aircraft fitted out as aerial offices; but most fall well short of that bar- since the luxury they provide their operators stems from the time- and cost-saving benefits they produce merely by providing the most-convenient way to connect two remote points.

Luxury corporate aircraft certainly exist –but few consider the machine itself as the luxury compared to the luxury of time they provide.

Detailing the experience of my first exposure to business aviation could easily sound like the start of a mystery novel: It started on a dark and stormy night (really- it did). A company in central Missouri sent a private plane and crew of two to pick up my two children and me in Chattanooga- Tennessee- fly us all back to Missouri on a magazine assignment to profile a new private recreational-aviation development and its new private airstrip and hangar apartments.

The company’s plane arrived at Lovell Field against my expectations- expectations lowered by waves of weather transiting the area that night. We loaded and launched through a black sky- illuminated by the blue-white stroboscopic bursts of an electrical storm accompanying some Level Two and Level Three weather – weather we somehow managed to nimbly avoid.

A little rain- a little rattle- a lot of light show- and in the predicted passage of time- they landed us at the destination airport.

Wow. 13- perhaps 14 hours of driving- at best- reduced to about three; the closest airline destination could get us only to within a 90-minute drive – after six hours of travel and plane changes.

Credit the awe and wonder that my first taste of corporate flying produced; truly- the experience made a permanent impression about the value of business flying – and at the time- it’s unlikely a definition of “business flying” actually existed for me. But our plane was far from some luxury turbine aircraft- neither jet nor propjet; it wasn’t even a twin. And it couldn’t fly us up where we needed pressurization.

The plane: a nicely equipped Cessna Skylane 182RG- to be precise- flown by a pair of commercial pilots. That “nicely equipped” description stemmed from the two-axis autopilot slaved to a navigation radio and a neat little box from 3M called a “Stormscope” – something new the Skylane sported for avoiding lightning shows like the one we enjoyed that night.

My memories of this introductory event- a seminal experience in my first year working as an aviation journalist- surges back often these days – typically a reaction to hearing some misinformed malapropism-prone person chattering- disparaging “fat-cat executives and their luxury private jets…”

Don’t get me wrong here; disparaging “fat cats” hardly gets a rise out of anyone these days – fat cats among the non-responsive. The label-as-epithet comes far too often and too-well reinforced to hold much latent shock value. It’s the automatic linking of “business” and “luxury” where private aircraft are concerned that defies the reality. It’s almost as if suddenly efficient transportation is always a “luxury” and never a “utility” – when the utility is- as noted above- the true luxury.

It’s actually a bit fun around the uninitiated to speak of the ‘Business Bonanza-’ the ‘Corporate Comanche’ or the ‘Skylane Luxury Plane.’ “Are those business jets you’ve flown?” these uninformed souls often ask. No; they aren’t jets at all…but they are hard-working all-business tools for many – and many others fly aircraft still far short of the luxury-jet stereotype but much closer to the corporate aircraft reality.

A useful message for our friends with misconceptions about the vagaries of “business” versus “luxury” aircraft: use defines the aircraft; the aircraft can’t define the mission. Not all private jets are truly business aircraft; some are solely and wholly the private transportation for owners able to support the mode rather than need the mode to support them.

Not all business aircraft are jets – nor even turbine – as you’ve seen above. But the non-jets serve all the same roles as the turbine-powered set and more. Use defines an aircraft as a “business airplane-” not the label assigned by the public or producer.

My ride in a Skylane RG was pure business; my first-ever airplane ride was purely personal- between my B-17-commander uncle and I. Years later- the urge to fly he inspired melded with my desire to control my travel and my company bought the first of two airplanes it operated. The second- in particular- worked like a horse for us- in some years providing convenient- direct- point-to-point travel to dozens of destinations.

Air Comanche- as we called the last plane- frequently delivered me to the needed destination in less than half the time needed to connect the same two points using the most-convenient commercial carriers – and did so at about Mach 0.22 instead of Mach 0.80…about 160 mph instead of 520.

Think about it; point-to-point between points 600 miles apart- in less than four hours. The two points share no direct airline flights so connectors are needed; all but one of the connections takes the passenger several hundred miles out of the way – one of them goes the wrong way first – and requires coordination with another flight- none of them under my direct control. The shortest we’ve ever made this work on the airlines is nearly six hours; typical is just over seven hours… and any checked bags are always subject to misrouting- as happened a couple of times to us. Flying Air Comanche- everything the pilot – myself – loaded arrived with me at my destination- every time.

Today- all those years after that night Skylane flight- we have in our acquaintance a number of people with businesses much larger than mine – but with travel needs equally off the scale of common-carriage convenience.

Consider the following example: A gentleman who runs the company his father built up- like his father before him owns dealerships in cities far a field from his headquarters.

All the dealerships are in medium-to-large cities; all boast airline services- and between the four cities and the airports involved- commercial carriers offer well over 150 flights a day. But none of these four Midwestern demi-metropolises have direct air service between any of the other three- leaving Mr. Car-Dealer with three choices for his regular meetings with managers at his three remote dealerships.

1. He could drive; he has hundreds of choices available right outside his office. Even though he makes his living selling cars- “no way am I spending my life in the car-” he thinks. The closest city pair is a six-to-seven-hour drive- the farthest about 13.
2. He could try to schedule swings using the airlines; with multi-stop tickets and precise scheduling of the meetings- he might make the common-carrier approach work- but at what costs? Besides- he asked- “Where’s the flexibility we need? Sometimes meetings need to shift a few hours or a day or two… what then?” At best- using the airlines would double the time needed to make a sweep- and probably triple it.
3. Mr. Car-Dealer- son of a car dealer- is also the son-of-a-pilot and- like when his father ran the show he employs a company-owned airplane for much of his travel needs. The cabin-class piston twin gave way to a similar turboprop twin as demands on the airplane increased. “The turbine works better for us-” he concludes.

A down-side of his success- though means he’s not flying it like his father did. With the enterprise so spread out and responsibilities for so many- managing takes time he once spent flying.

“Today we need a professional pilot as far as I’m concerned-” he reasons- “and I’d never be as good or as safe as a pilot who flies regularly. But sometimes I fly part of the flight with our pilot as legal P.I.C. so I can log some instruction time.”

And sometimes Mr. Car-Dealer isn’t even in the airplane when it’s working. “We use it to drop off drivers when we’ve got cars to get back from auctions; we use it to send buyers out to look for more used-car stock. The plane works for us – it pays its way every day it flies. When that stops- it’ll be time for me to make a new decision about corporate aircraft.

“The one decision I don’t expect to make is going into a jet; not justifiable with the distances and loads we fulfill and the current costs are a match with our needs.” Embracing such efficiencies helps these planes earn their keep- an investment that returns more than the cash costs.

Another big auto dealer we know follows the same philosophy as Mr. Car-Dealer above- but on a different set of conditions; fewer out-of-town dealerships- but more travel to auctions and to drop off drivers.

“I fly the airplane-” he says. “It fits my schedule- I can usually do some good business at the stops- it’s my company and I like flying-” noted this car tycoon.

The aircraft- a large twin turboprop- qualifies as a single-pilot aircraft- but this auto executive prefers the company of a second pilot on the flight deck. “The second pilot is partly safety oriented- partly convenience oriented-” he explained. “If I’m tired- if I can’t focus- he’s P.I.C. in the left seat and I occupy the right to help as needed. And if something happens and my plans need to change- the pilot can drop me somewhere or leave me and continue the rest of the trip.

“It’s just a smart option for me and good work for him. We even do a few days together each year getting recurrent training at FlightSafety (International). And he has other duties when he’s not needed in the cockpit – so we keep him from getting bored.”

Hopefully- this little diversion into a journalist’s aviation history and a look at a couple of car dealers shines some light on that very deep world of business aviation exclusive of the business jet stereotype.

But it’s not the business jet’s fault if it’s misused by some over-paid- under-sensitive business person – physical stature aside. In the great scheme of things- though- the “fat cat executives” misusing business aviation constitutes a small percentage of business aviation users and the flight hours they log.

By far more dominant is the basic one-plane- one-crew flight department in which the pilot may also be an executive or a lead technician- marketing executive- field engineer or ‘chief-of-everything’ entrepreneur. By far more dominant is the small-company’s smallish airplane flying moderate legs in service of regional transportation needs and lots of short legs – not the jet-set stereotype sipping champagne and nibbling toast points with caviar.

More than likely- the plane carries the pilot and a couple more staffers – technicians- engineers- medical circuit riders- consultants – and the group travels regularly over a regular network of company destinations- carrying bagged lunches and bottled drinks in an ice chest.

And to the maximum extent possible- the operator schedules flights to help the hearty travelers get home most nights and avoid the added disruption- cost and discomfort of hotel overnights.

The time and money saved in my little Skylane business flight of 25 years ago started opening my eyes to the vast scope that is business aviation and the corporate aircraft. Air Comanche played a significant role in my company’s growth as have the countless Cessna and Beechcraft- Mooney- Pilatus and Cirrus business-use airplanes old and new- flown by thousands of other small businesses.

The common element in the choice- selection and application of an airplane in support of a business is the utility that plane provides its operator. When that utility generates a positive influence and benefits the financial outcome- there’s nothing luxury about it. Then it’s a production tool – no different than a drill press or a desktop computer.

And who can ever claim tools that produce gain are a luxury for a business? Certainly no one with any sense of the challenges of operating any business today!

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