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Feb 14, 2004
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Some Frequent Travelers Prefer to Be in Cockpit
Airport Discomforts Prompt Business Owners to Become Their Own Pilots, Avoiding Stress of Commercial Flights
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Stephanie Kornegay used to find shuttling back and forth between her two businesses -- which required 4:30 a.m. wake-up calls and a four-hour drive -- a trying ordeal. Then she got her pilot's license.

Ms. Kornegay, who owns two hotels in Mount Olive, N.C., and provides private golf instruction in Charlotte, N.C., now drives a short distance to the Mount Olive Municipal Airport and flies her personal aircraft across the state to an airport near Charlotte. She says the entire trip takes an hour and a half. "That adds up to an additional five hours each week that I can be doing something else," she says.

Self-piloting doesn't make sense for every business owner, especially in a recession. Flight instruction typically costs up to $9,000, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association in Frederick, Md., and buying a used aircraft will run between $50,000 and $70,000, plus annual fees for storage and maintenance.

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Some entrepreneurs tout private planes as major time savers. Business owner Stephanie Kornegay pictured with her personal aircraft.
The Federal Aviation Administration says the number of pilots with a private license has dropped about 14% in the last 10 years, to nearly 223,000 in 2008.

There's also an inherent risk of danger and you may be grounded in bad weather. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, there were 491 fatalities in private aviation in 2007.

Still, some entrepreneurs who travel frequently find being their own pilot makes good business sense, allowing them to dodge long drives and airport delays. "There's not necessarily a monetary case to be made for it," says AOPA spokesman Chris Dancy. "But when you start to add in lost productivity and the additional hotel and rental car expenses, aviation makes a much stronger case than trips using airlines."

The AOPA estimates that the cost of flying an aircraft provides the most return for flights that are less than 500 miles.

About 85% of companies that use personal aircraft are small or midsize companies, estimates Ed Bolen, president and chief executive of the National Business Aviation Association in Washington. The lobbying group was active last fall when chief executives of the Big Three auto companies were criticized for flying company jets, advocating that such flights are time efficient.

After eight years of regular road trips, Peter La Colla secured his pilot license in 2000, and subsequently earned his "instrument rating," which allows him to fly in reduced visibility. As CEO of McColla Enterprises Ltd. in Topeka, Kan., which owns the Street Corner mini-convenience store chain, Mr. La Colla flies to visit some of his 50 franchise locations in places such as Danbury, Conn., Bloomington, Minn., and Nashville. "I just wanted to swing through those cities but doing that commercially would be miserable," he says.

Mr. La Colla says his time in the air costs about $100 an hour, including the fuel, oil, repairs and engine wear. So flying time from Topeka to Chicago, which is just shy of 600 miles and takes more than two hours each way, costs almost $500 round trip. That trip on the commercial airlines averages about $150.

But that doesn't account for the extra five hours Mr. La Colla would have to spend getting to and from the commercial airports and passing through security, nor the inconvenience of traveling on the airline's schedule.

To make the trips more worthwhile, Mr. La Colla tries to visit 15 to 20 cities in a week by landing at one of the 5,200 airports open to the public in the U.S. By comparison, commerical air carriers are bound to only 500 of those airports and must adhere to strict timetables.

There are hidden perks, too. Small airport operators often provide complimentary services, such as arranging rental-car pickup. "They will have a rental car waiting for you, often times with the heat and AC already running," Mr. La Colla says.

Mr. La Colla points out that he is also able to take up to three employees with him on the flights, and can write off usage of the plane as a business expense. He credits the flights to various locations with improving his business. "There is a direct correlation between sales in franchise stores and the amount of time I fly," Mr. La Colla says. "Most of my work is done by email, but to close a deal, I need to meet face-to-face."

Michael Roth, an information technology manager, flies regularly for his job at Complete Production Services Inc., an oil company in Houston. Mr. Roth recently launched a personal aviation consulting company called Horizons Aloft, a part-time venture based in Denton, Texas, that aims to introduce more entrepreneurs into flight. He has been touring the country offering cost-analysis services to business owners.

"It's difficult convincing people that it's in their reach," says Mr. Roth, who has yet to sign his first client. "I've met with some people who are interested but don't think they are capable right now in this economy."

Mr. Roth believes that prospective clients would get hooked after trying it once. "It's a relaxing and rewarding activity," he says.

Write to Emily Maltby at