Airport Hassles Spur Rise of Private Flights

Oct. 2--Lionel Andre recently found a new way to deal with the hassle of big airports and big airlines, namely, avoid them altogether.

Andre, 30, a business analyst with Siebel Systems Inc., lives in South Boston, barely 3 miles from Logan International Airport, but since June he's been heading almost every week to Hanscom Field in Bedford to fly to New Jersey. Andre takes Linear Air LLC, a new private-plane service that flies four days a week to Teterboro, N.J., across the river from New York City.

Flying takes longer in the 10-seat Cessna Caravan turboprop than in a commercial jet, but the overall trip can be shorter when factoring in security lines and other traffic at Logan. At $438 round trip, it can cost roughly the same as a commercial flight. Pretzels and cookies are served, Andre can spread out to work on his laptop, and valet parking at Hanscom can make it a 10-foot walk from the plane to his car.

"It's superconvenient, and it's really first-class treatment," Andre said.

Andre is among a growing group of business travelers and affluent vacationers who have flocked to new ways of flying to avoid the frustrations of big airports, long security lines, and enervating commutes to and from the flight.

While three of the six major US airlines are still operating in Chapter 11 protection and while US Airways Inc. left bankruptcy court last week, the business of private plane service is thriving.

Companies such as Linear -- which plans to add new service Tuesday between Hanscom and Westchester County Airport in White Plains, N.Y. -- and others that sell time on charter jets are making private-plane service increasingly affordable.

Another impetus: Passengers often get to decide when they want to fly and where they want to fly to.

Nationally, business jets and turboprop planes carried 13 million passengers last year, up from 11 million in 2000 and 9.8 million in 1998, according to Jerry Bernstein, an aviation analyst with The Velocity Group consulting firm in San Francisco.

That figure encompasses a range of services, including air taxi companies that allow people to hire planes for service, scheduled charter carriers such as Linear, and people who own or partially own a plane that is staffed with a crew.

The number of Americans with ownership interests in private jets has more than tripled in the last five years, to 4,886 this year, according to Aviation Data Service Inc., a Utica, N.Y., market analysis firm. Thousands more are signing up for jet card services that let them buy rides on private jets in increments of 25 or 50 hours at a time.

Ownership interests generally start at $100,000 a year, which may seem steep but can be comparable for travelers who frequently buy last-minute, first-class tickets.

Membership in Sentient Jet, a Norwell company that books flights on 900 private jets for subscribers, has increased 85 percent in the last year, chief executive Steven Hankin said. Sentient, which charges $2,000 to $6,000 for a round-trip flight, said it has several thousand members but does not give specific figures.

William Herp -- chief executive of Lexington-based Linear Air, which began flying 13 months ago -- said all signs he sees suggest continued growth in demand. "I have called this the 'if we build it they will come' strategy," Herp said. "People are so disaffected with the public airline service model."

Linear offers one of the least expensive options for travelers who want a private jet experience. Federal law allows companies such as Linear to offer up to four scheduled round trips per week on specific routes before they are regulated as airlines. Linear also offers weekend service to Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.

Noncommercial aviation businesses have attracted a host of big names and big investors. Berkshire Hathaway Corp., owned by Warren E. Buffett, has funded NetJets Inc., a leading provider of fractional-ownership jets. Robert L. Crandall, former chief executive at American Airlines, and Donald C. Burr, founder of 1980s discount upstart People Express Airways Corp., are teaming up to launch a new southern New England air-taxi company next year to be called Pogo.

Boston private-equity powerhouse Thomas H. Lee is a key backer of Sentient Jet, whose board includes the former head of the Federal Aviation Administration Jane F. Garvey and which has also set up a safety advisory board with former top officials of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Safety concerns have not cast shadows over the industry's growth. NTSB figures indicate that operators of smaller scheduled and nonscheduled planes had 73 crashes that killed 65 people last year, compared with just 13 fatalities for all domestic commercial airlines. Measured in fatalities per hour of flight, commercial airlines were about 24 times safer than private operations.

For all its recent growth, many industry officials expect the noncommercial passenger aviation business will take an even bigger leap next year as a new breed of aircraft called very light jets begins to enter service. The FAA is expected to certify VLJs for commercial operations as soon as March.

Costing as little as $1 million to $2 million each, or a half to a quarter the cost of the cheapest small jets today, VLJs could carry four passengers at speeds up to 400 miles per hour on routes of up to 1,200 miles.

Even more important, VLJs will be able to land at airports with runways as short as 3,000 feet. That could ultimately bring jet service to 5,400 smaller US airports that are within a half-hour drive of 93 percent of Americans' homes, according to industry data. Those potentially include Massachusetts airports in Chatham, Gardner, Hopedale, Mansfield, Marshfield, Shirley, and Tewksbury.

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is a big VLJ believer, investing millions in Eclipse Aviation of Albuquerque, one of a half-dozen aircraft makers building the small jets.

"VLJs are probably going to revolutionize this industry," said Dan Hubbard, vice president of the National Business Aviation Association, a trade group. "They're going to make charter flights a very reasonable option. Why go through all the hassles of airlines that operate on their schedule, landing three hours away from the city you want to get to? To me, that's a no-brainer for people who fly frequently."

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