I grew up in a little town called Nyack, located in the lower Hudson River valley of New York about 20 miles north of Manhattan. After we moved to Jacksonville in 2013, and until my parents relocated here in 2018, our primary mode of family transportation to visit my parents in New York was our 180-hp Cessna 172, N65842. On a few occasions, I rode the airlines up there with our daughter while Dana stayed in Jacksonville to run the flight school. But it was always more fun for everyone when we traveled together as a family. This included our 40-pound American Foxhound mutt, who was as comfortable in back seat of the Skyhawk as he was in the back of our minivan.
The main advantage to airline travel, of course, is that a jet travels much faster than a single-engine airplane or a car. But when you factor in time spent driving to the airline hub, parking, shuttle buses and security lines, baggage check, treks through huge terminals and long layovers, this can easily add several hours to a trip. Not to mention the current insane hassles of wearing masks the entire time, especially when traveling with a child, or having to prove you’ve tested negative or been vaccinated for COVID.
Below is a sample flight I just grabbed off of Expedia, that represents an actual airline ticket I might have purchased for a weekend visit to New York. The price quote today is about what I would have expected to pay back then, about $200 round trip per person. Total flight time is about 3.5 hours, and total travel time from arriving at JAX one hour before departure time, to exiting the terminal at HPN is about 5 hours.
Let’s compare the cost and travel time of this sample ticket to the cost, travel time and overall experience if we were to fly N65842 up there today. First, we would not fly from JAX to HPN. We would depart from our home airport, Craig, and arrive at the Lincoln Park Airport (N07) near Morristown, NJ. This is the airport we used on most of our trips to New York because Westchester County had become too busy and expensive. Lincoln Park is a small, non-towered field nestled in the hills of northern New Jersey, which at the time had cheap self-serve fuel, free parking and a great on-site restaurant. It took my parents about the same amount of time to drive to Lincoln Park to pick us up as it did for them to drive to White Plains, so it was a great choice overall.
Assuming good VFR conditions, our typical flight time from CRG to N07 in N65842 was about 6-7 hours with stops in Florence, SC and Norfolk, VA for fuel, rest and food. Dana’s mother lives in Virginia Beach, so usually we’d spend the night with her there before heading up to New York. At our typical cruising altitude of 5,500 feet, N65842 burns about 9 gallons per hour, but we always planned for 10 gallons per hour just to be on the safe side. At today’s self-serve fuel prices (about $5.50/gal), this trip would realistically cost us $700-800 in fuel round trip, or about $250 per person — roughly the same cost per person as a round trip airline ticket.
So, even though the total travel time from Jacksonville to New York was less when we traveled the airlines, it wasn’t that much less. Plus, flying ourselves was much more relaxing and fun. We could leave whenever we wanted, bring whatever we wanted (no worrying about travel size toothpaste and shampoo), drive our car right up to the plane to load and unload, and if we needed a break along the way, we could stop whenever we wanted. There are municipal airports all over the country that serve as rest stops for pilots. Most have decent bathrooms, couches and recliners, vending machines, water and coffee, and many have rental cars or free “crew cars” that pilots can borrow for an hour or two to run into town for a bite to eat.
Besides speed, the only other real advantage of taking an airline flight instead of flying yourself in a small plane is that airliners can fly through weather conditions that many small airplane pilots either can’t due to inadequate equipment, or choose not to for safety reasons. Most of the time, though, the weather is reasonably good enough for most small airplane pilots to fly. Having an instrument rating (which we do) helps minimize travel delays on cloudy days. In the years we flew to New York we only got significantly delayed by weather once, over a Thanksgiving weekend trip when we were grounded in New York for two extra nights due to low fog conditions. But it was no big deal, didn’t cost us any more money, and was actually kind of fun. Last minute changes to airline itineraries, however, can be very expensive and often very inconvenient. Also, there is no reasonable way we could ever bring our dog with us on an airline trip. If you add in the extra cost and emotional trauma to the dog of overnight boarding, the case for flying our own airplane is a no-brainer.
All of this, of course, assumes that you have access to an airplane and are already a certificated pilot. It’s not practical or realistic to try to factor in the cost of training and the purchase of an airplane to the cost of flying a trip with your family, because there are so many variables. Buying an airplane is more like buying a house than it is like buying a car.
But consider the following scenario. You and your wife have two young children and a small dog. Your best friends have one older child and no pets. At least one adult in each household is willing and able to commit to earning a pilot certificate. The families shop for an airplane that meets both of their needs and budget, and hire an instructor to teach them to fly in their airplane. To get an idea of what airplanes cost, you can visit Trade-A-Plane.com and search for “Cessna 172.” Realistically you can expect to pay about $100K for a well-equipped, well-maintained airplane with a low-time engine, though it’s possible to purchase a functional, safe airplane for considerably less if you’re willing to sacrifice avionics and curb appeal.
The instructor fees for one person to learn how to fly in his or her airplane is about $3,500. The students can save a few hundred dollars each and also gain valuable experience by sharing their ground lessons and riding along on each other’s flight lessons. As partners in the airplane purchase, you will likely split the costs of insurance, annual inspections and hangar rent, which again will vary depending on what type of airplane you own and where you keep it. To use our personal example, if we were to own N65842 as our personal airplane (and not have it available for rent to flight school customers), our annual insurance premium would likely be about $1,500. Assuming nothing crazy goes wrong with the plane (again, it’s more like a house than a car here) routine annual inspections cost about $2,000 and oil changes would cost a few hundred dollars, or less if you do them yourself. A hangar (if you can find one) is going to run about $500 a month, but if you park your airplane outside that drops to less than $100 a month. Add it all up and the total cost of owning the airplane is about $5-10K per year. However, if you divide that cost among the individuals who benefit from the use of the airplane — in our example, 4 adults and 3 children — the real cost per month per person, to have private use of a single-engine piston airplane for personal travel and pleasure, can be as low as about $50 a month.
If you and your aircraft partners take good care of your airplane and collectively fly it 100 hours a year for five years, you can probably sell it for about what you paid for it, perhaps more if you do some modest upgrades like add a good GPS and fresh exterior paint. Factor all of this in with the incalculable personal benefits of being able to fly yourself and your family anywhere you want to go, virtually anytime with none of the hassles of airline travel, and the case for aircraft ownership becomes clear.
Let’s say you don’t want to own an airplane, or don’t think you can afford one, but you still want to learn how to fly so you can rent an airplane to take on trips with your family. If you did this with us at Holladay Aviation, once you earn your private pilot certificate the cost for this sample round trip from Jacksonville to New York would be about $2,400, which includes fuel. If a family of four made the trip that’s $400 per person round trip, not much more than an airline ticket. At Holladay Aviation, if you schedule your trip well in advance and are willing to be flexible on your departure and return dates, there is no reason why you can’t use our aircraft for personal travel. Check out this blog post by one of our former students who flew N739ZW across the country with his father.