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OPERATIONS

Flight Club

Forget the company car. Getting around is faster--and less expensive than you may think--in a private plane.
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Antiterrorism initiatives and airline cutbacks are making it ever harder to be a road warrior, so business owners are increasingly taking to the skies in their own aircraft. Some are jets, but many are smaller, more affordable planes featuring the latest in technological advances. Composite materials like carbon fiber are making new planes sleeker, faster, and more efficient. Satellite navigation and especially the newly launched GPS Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) mean that within a year or two, all public-use airports in the United States will be all-weather airports with satellite-based instrument landing systems. Planes like the Cirrus SR22 and Lancair Columbia 350 (both of which I've flown) feature glass cockpits with moving map displays and as many LCD screens as corporate jets. Coupled with digital autopilots, the planes fly themselves as well or better than you can. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, the rate of fatal accidents per 100,000 hours of flight by commercial airlines in 2000 was 0.017. For general aviation that rate rises to 1.16, or 68 times as great. But understand that this sobering statistic varies greatly depending on aircraft type and pilot training. About half of general aviation accidents are caused by pilot error, says the NTSB.

Plane ownership is less cost-prohibitive than you might think. Small planes, which can fly into more than 5,000 airports, compare favorably against airlines, which can fly into only 550 airports, from travel time door-to-door to cost for trips under 1,000 miles. The standard operating cost can be as low as 32¢ per mile, including hangar space, insurance, maintenance, and fuel but not the purchase price. You could pay $320 for a commercial flight, but on your own plane, that same price covers you and up to three passengers. For a more comprehensive breakdown, the National Business Aviation Association's Travel$ense Windows software compares the cost and value of operating a business aircraft versus using commercial airlines. Departure and arrival schedules and distance to destination are quantified against airline fares and timetables. Another incentive: The accelerated bonus depreciation tax benefit, in which businesses can claim a first-year depreciation totaling half the purchase price, applies to business aircraft, as long as you buy by January 1, 2005.

Just about any well-maintained airplane 10 years or older is worth more today than when it was built.

A $300,000 aircraft often makes for a good investment, especially if you fly at least 200 hours per year. Historically, it depreciates in the first three to five years before rising in value. Small airplanes last a long time--thousands are still flying from 1946, one of the greatest years for aircraft production. Just about any well-maintained plane 10 years or older is worth more today than when it was built.

Here Are Three Options

Cirrus SR22

Price: $313,900
Seats: 4
Cruise speed: 207 mph
Range: 1,100 miles, with a 45-minute fuel reserve
Notes: 310-hp engine; a luxurious cabin that feels like a Lexus, a whole-plane parachute (just in case), satellite navigation, moving map display, digital autopilot. Reliable and incredibly easy to fly. 218-727-2737
www.cirrusdesign.com

Lancair Columbia 350

Price: $369,000
Seats: 4
Cruise speed: 219 mph
Range: 1,110 miles, with a 45-minute fuel reserve
Notes: 310-hp engine; glass cockpit, satellite navigation, digital autopilot, all-electric. Faster than the SR22, it's a hot rod to fly. Look for a 265-mph turbocharged Columbia 400 next spring. 541-318-1144
www.lancair.com

Diamond Aircraft DA42 Twin Star

Price: $360,000
Seats: 4
Cruise speed: 231 mph
Range: 1,535 miles, with a 45-minute fuel reserve
Notes: Built in Wiener Neustadt, Austria. Retractable landing gear, twin turbodiesels based on Mercedes car engines that burn jet fuel (as costly as aviation gasoline in the U.S. but cheaper elsewhere); low operating cost. Available mid to late next year. 888-359-3220
www.diamondair.com




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