When I learned to fly more than 40 years ago the initial challenge was the same as for every new pilot—get the airplane around the airport and back on the runway. Once I could do that my objective was to go places. Flying is fun, but for me and the pilots I knew those many years ago the best use of an airplane was to go where you wanted on your schedule.
But so much has changed over the decades I often wonder if traveling in your own general aviation airplane is practical for most pilots now as it was then.
What really changed the practicality equation of GA flying for transportation is airline deregulation. And development of the airline hub-and-spoke scheduling system.
Before deregulation airline fares more or less reflected the cost of flying the route, with some margin built in for a small profit to keep the line afloat financially. Back then it cost more to fly from New York to Los Angeles than from Cleveland to Chicago. That makes sense. Regulated fares were not exactly the same amount for every mile flown because there are expenses concentrated in departure and arrival no matter how long or short the trip, but overall the fares reflected the actual operating cost of the airliner.
After deregulation any link between trip distance and ticket price went out the window. Now it can cost less to fly from New York to London than New York to Washington. And if an airline is defending one of its major hubs, fares to and from that hub can plummet to absurdly low prices.
The hub-and-spoke airline scheduling system also diminished the value of GA transportation flying because it made it possible to get to so many more destinations with many times more frequent flights. Using hub-and-spoke the airlines can sort passengers at the hub like FedEx sorts packages. Many, many more airports can be served than if airplanes traveled only between city pairs as they once did.
Meanwhile, the direct cost of operating your own airplane continues to be locked into the number of hours flown. Of course fixed costs such as insurance, hangar, and to some degree even maintenance, are not linked to the number of hours flown. But fuel costs, engine reserve and wear and tear on things like brakes, tires and many airplane components are paid for by the mile.
When I learned to fly you could beat airline fares over many routes with just two or three people in a Skylane or Cherokee, for example. Now, with a little advance planning and some online shopping, you can airline those same three people from Cleveland to Orlando for less than the cost of fuel to fly a Skylane from Cleveland to Cincinnati.
Of course, every legacy airline has gone bankrupt over those years, and several of the grand old lines are gone for good, but once freed from regulation they found it irresistible to charge fares that just couldn’t cover the cost.
On the other hand, the GA airplane owner suffered through rising expense for every aspect of operation and simply couldn’t rationalize the cost difference between the airlines and flying their own airplane except on the shortest trips. Maybe one day airline fares will rise to cover the true cost of flying and that will make a GA airplane logical again. Or more likely the hassle factor will become so much greater that any pilot who can afford it will fly themselves no matter the cost difference just to avoid the awful airline experience.
I still fly myself just about anywhere I go domestically, but for 37 years that has been part of my job. If I were flying for purely personal reasons instead of business, would I still make the trip? Maybe. But even for business I find myself drawing the line for a trip in my Baron at 1,000 to 1,200 nm when for many years I thought nothing of flying from one coast to the other. The airline fare for a coast-to-coast trip is darn near free compared to the cost of flying your own airplane.
I think general aviation airplanes are still a wonderful and convenient way to travel, and I hope to keep flying trips for many more years. But through no fault of GA airplanes and pilots much of the transportation practicality of years ago is gone. That means for most of us flying purely for fun and perhaps to go to the remote, out of the way spot, will be the primary use for personal airplanes. And that makes sense. After all, I don’t sail my boat for transportation, only to get around the race mark ahead of the other guys.