How much does it cost to rent/operate a plane as a private pilot compared to flying on a standard commercial ticket
November 15, 2010 4:57 PM   Subscribe

How much does it cost to rent/operate a plane as a private pilot compared to flying on a standard commercial ticket?

It seems that the TSA is going to keep making the process of flying in the USA more and more inconvenient and intrusive, so I'm wondering if it would be worth it to get my private pilot's license. I actually took about 10 hours of flight instruction a few years ago. It was fun and challenging, but I got distracted and never returned to it. I'm thinking about returning to it now.

But, compared to commercial aviation, how much:
  • More Expensive Is It?
  • Longer Does it Take to Reach Your Destination?
  • Less Comfortable is it for long-hauls?
Basically is it a reasonable substitute for somebody willing to put in the time to learn to do it, or is it a hobby that's great for tooling from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, but not something you'd want to do for serious travel (like say LA to Seattle or LA to Hawaii)?

Assume I'm not buying my own plane but rather joining a club or timeshare kind of thing for access to the planes.
posted by willnot to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have the numbers handy, but it's not going to be cost comparative at all. It is a fun hobby though!
posted by dcjd at 5:04 PM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Far cheaper to fly the airlines, my husband is a pilot and has flown different types of small aircraft.
posted by sandyp at 5:09 PM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

"If God had meant man to fly, he'd have given us more money." For the vast majority of use cases, private aviation is never cheaper or faster than the airlines. (I speak from experience. If you want hard numbers feel free to memail.)

Trips like San Jose to Mendocino are where private aviation really wins -- no scheduled service, and no convenient freeway. Things like SJC -> SEA (or SJC-> LAX) will be cheaper and faster on airlines.
posted by phliar at 5:15 PM on November 15, 2010

I'd say one major issue is weather and reliability. Obviously airlines aren't great in bad weather, but they can keep flying in IFR conditions where most private pilots can't. It's going to cost a lot more to get and maintain an instrument rating and fly instrument capable planes. With a commercial flight, you have a fairly good chance of getting to your destination within a couple hours of the scheduled time unless there's a major storm at your origin and destination. Flying yourself, you have to make that go/no-go decision based on your own safety criteria (I am not a pilot, just how I understand it), which complicates things significantly if you're planning on flying a substantial distance for a business meeting or other commitment.

LA-Hawaii is certainly not going to happen unless you're getting a multi-engine rating and renting decently large jets. You're 2.5 hours from land at the half-way point!
posted by zachlipton at 5:21 PM on November 15, 2010

Here are some typical numbers if you rent a Cessna 172 (pretty much the kind of airplane a layman envisions when you say "Cessna": four seats, one engine, one propeller):

- Rental costs: $90/hour
- Cruising speed: 140 mph

So, for a transcontinental round-trip flight (~5000 miles, 34+ hours of flight time), expect to pay upwards of $3,200, and to take several days getting there. Even for a short 500-mile regional round-trip, you're still looking at over $600 in rental fees alone. Only if you put several people in the airplane will you start getting some scenarios where the cost is competitive with the airlines.

When it comes to comfort, a small general aviation aircraft is at best comparable to a cheap small car: much less comfortable than an airliner ride. It will be much noisier (both engine noise and wind noise), a lot bumpier, and much more airsickness-inducing than an airliner. And just as in a car, you will not have the option of getting up to stretch your legs or (more importantly) go to a bathroom.

Added to this, small general aviation aircraft can't fly in as broad a range of weather as airliners can, so you are much more likely to have to delay/abort a leg of your trip due to storms, low clouds, winds, icing conditions, etc.

Bottom line: it's a great hobby.
posted by Dimpy at 5:33 PM on November 15, 2010

When I was a member of a flying club, I paid $85 an hour for a Cessna 185. The cruising speed was about 165 mph, and you could fly maybe 800 miles at once if your bladder could take it. This isn't including landing fees, which are low at small airports but more at the bigger airports where you might want to go. The downside is that there is a lot of weather you don't want to fly though that big jets go over, so it is easy to get stuck someplace on a trip.

In general, commercial flights are much cheaper, faster, and are less affected by the weather.
posted by procrastination at 5:36 PM on November 15, 2010

'How comfortable' and 'how fast' is directly related to how much you pay for the airplane - If you can sink $3.5m on a Hondajet, it's going to be at least as fast as most of the commecial flights, maybe faster.
On the other end, if you bash together a Hummelbird for around $4,000, it's going to be downright cramped. And it's going to take about three years of all your spare time to build.
For a ballpark figure, the distance between Philadelphia(PHL) and San Francisco(SFO) is about 2500 miles. The Hondajet cruises at 480mph(5 hours), the Hummelbird at 100mph(25hrs), which ignores refueling, pit stops, the fact that you're never going to get a 'direct to' clearance across the country and a whole bunch of other stuff.
If you go for a more middle-of-the-road option, an RV-6 costs about $50,000 as a kit and cruises at about 180mph and would take 14 hrs.
Note we're leaving all the maintenance costs out of the estimate, because thinks like flight school, plane storage, fuel and maintenance all vary based on where you are, and/or what you buy.
posted by Orb2069 at 5:37 PM on November 15, 2010

How much more expensive: The fuel alone is not cheap. Insurance is very expensive (not sure if you have to carry your own if you're renting, though; may be built into the cost of the rental). You have to keep re-qualifying to keep your license, and you have to get special medical exams. There can be fees for having your plane tied down or kept in a hangar at the destination.

How much longer to reach your destination: Depends on what kind of plane you're in. Faster ones will require more training. The kind I've been in aren't *that* much faster than a car, really, but of course you can go as the crow flies. Going halfway across the country in that kind of plane is a major undertaking with probably a couple of fuel stops.

How much less comfortable: Again in my own limited experience, being in a small plane is less comfortable than being in the back seat of a cheap compact car. And as the pilot, you wouldn't just be sailing along enjoying the view; you have to have a constant degree of high vigilance.
posted by lakeroon at 5:39 PM on November 15, 2010

Flying a small airplane is a hobby which can be fun, if you are a methodical, detail oriented person. I gave it up because while I am very methodical and detail oriented, I found myself occasionally forgetting important little actions.

Making a simple mistake in a car such as driving with the handbrake on is just an annoyance. Making a similar mistake in a plane, such as taking off with an elevator gust-lock still attached will kill you.

In some parts of the country a small airplane can be a good means of transport most of the year. I used to know people in the Bay Area who would commute hundreds of miles from Northern CA to work in their own small planes. Outside the sunbelt this is impossible in winter because small planes cannot fly in icing conditions, which usually occur when it is cloudy and the air temperature at flying elevations is below 0 C.
posted by monotreme at 6:00 PM on November 15, 2010

The above answers are good, but I personally think the situation is not quite so clear-cut. If you really wanted to do a proper analysis of this, you'll need to consider a few things:

-How often do you need to travel?
-How far do you need to travel?
-Will you be traveling with other people, or alone?

Saying "flying your own plane is more expensive than going commercial" is a bit like saying "owning a car is more expensive than taking the bus". Yes, in the majority of instances you would be correct, but if you do it right you could actually benefit from your own aircraft.

There's a bit of a sweet spot where flying your own plane beats commercial travel, and it'll depend on your local geography and economy. For example, if I wanted to get from my home (Boston) to Bangor, ME, I don't have very many choices. No non-stop flights, and the cheapest one-stop looks like it's about $650 round-trip and takes three and a half hours to get there. To fly myself, I'm estimating it would take about 2.5 to 3 hours each way and cost roughly the same amount as a commercial flight.

This hypothetical situation assumes that I'm the only one flying and that I'm renting. If I had to do this trip, say, with a coworker, the commercial cost doubles but the rental cost stays flat. If I owned my own aircraft and were doing the trip multiple times a month, the per-trip cost remains (more or less) flat on a commercial airline while the per-trip cost in my personal aircraft decreases the more often I fly.

There are other less obvious benefits, too. I don't need to check luggage, go through security, or keep my liquids under three ounces. I don't need to pay for parking at Logan - the "local field" doesn't charge for parking. I can get closer to my ultimate destination than I can flying commercial, too; if you want to get to Boston then Logan's a great choice, but what if you want to go to Provincetown or Portsmouth?

As for comfort, the longest trip I ever took in a small plane was ten hours over two days and it was much better than being in an airliner for that length of time. No bathrooms or meal service on the plane, though.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:28 AM on November 16, 2010

1- Don't forget the costs "recouped" from not having to go through the regular airport. How much would you pay to not have to go through that.

2- Just wait until more people start thinking this way and we start needing security for private aircraft and airfields. Don't ruin it!

3- As backseatpilot mentioned, there is a sweet spot where it isn't entirely out of the question. Think about the family vacation to Disney. How much money and effort does the commercial flight to Orlando take for a family of say 6 people? I figured it out once; at that time you could rent a small corporate jet + pilot for very close to the same price as commercial. It was like $300 an hour (at that time). And the flight time is reduced because those aircraft don't necessarily have to follow the commercial airlanes.
posted by gjc at 6:37 AM on November 16, 2010

Not an expert, but I believe the accident rate (per flight, per mile ?) for small private aircraft is considerably higher than for commercial. The aircraft are larger and more sophisticated and, most importantly, the pilots are highly trained and conduct their trade all the time. Private pilots typically struggle to keep up their skill level, and are wise to drop the hobby when realize that they can't. As with surgery, practice and repetition is the key to success.

As others have said, a great hobby but only a practical method of getting from A to B under special circumstances.
posted by Kevin S at 6:43 AM on November 16, 2010

For example, if I wanted to get from my home (Boston) to Bangor, ME, I don't have very many choices.

OTOH, this is only a 4 hour drive, and would cost $30 or so in gas each way. And you don't have to worry about weather at all, and you have a car to drive when you get there. The sweet spot for private plane travel really is small.
posted by smackfu at 7:31 AM on November 16, 2010

Yeah, but where's the fun in that?

A better example might be Nantucket. You can drive, get stuck in traffic on the bridge to the Cape, get on the ferry.... Or I can be there in an hour by air. I can even bring a bicycle with me.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:45 AM on November 16, 2010

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