John Moss, the chief executive of the S2 Security Corporation in Wellesley, Mass., started piloting his own plane for business trips because he wanted the freedom to go any place at any time. But Mr. Moss, who designs electronic security systems, has found an unexpected advantage: taking customers for a spin in a six-seater single-engine Piper Malibu helps seal deals.
"I've had clients say to me, 'I'll go ahead and buy a system, but I want a ride in the airplane,' '' he said.
A round of golf on Nantucket, views over the Grand Canyon, a day in Key West - in each instance, Mr. Moss was already nearby and obliged the request. And for a $250,000 contract with a Boston client who suddenly craved corned beef on rye with mustard and a pickle from a New York deli, "We flew to La Guardia, a completely decadent thing, got a cab, got to Zabar's, got the sandwich and flew straight back to Boston," he said.
"There's a phrase in the aviation community: the 'hundred dollar hamburger,' '' Mr. Moss said. "It's a faux justification for flying the plane, where the journey is its own reward." Winning customers is not the only benefit for business travelers who have a pilot's license. Mr. Moss, who flies a plane about 200 hours a year for business, is one of many executives, frustrated by delays at commercial airports and on clogged interstates, who are seeking ways to beat the crowds.
A nonprofit foundation in Washington called Be a Pilot encourages business travelers and others to learn to fly by offering a $49 introductory lesson nationwide. Since June, registration is up about 12 percent from the period a year ago, the group says. And in a Federal Aviation Administration survey of general aviation pilots and aircraft owners between 1997 and 2001, the total hours flown annually for business grew 19 percent, from 3 million hours to nearly 3.6 million hours, Hank Price, an F.A.A. spokesman, said.
Instead of becoming stressed over today's heightened airport screening or worrying about lost luggage, Mr. Moss and one of his partners, Michael Welles, who pilots a Cessna 182, fly themselves to trade shows and meetings. They cannot help chuckling to themselves when they board their plane carrying a red briefcase that holds a demonstration unit of their system complete with circuit boards, wires and switches.
"It looks very James Bond," Mr. Moss said. "When you open it, I can just hear the transportation safety guy at the airport: 'Oh my God, what is this? Never mind taking off your shoes. Would you mind plugging this in?' '' But in the last several years he has seen greatly tightened ramp security at major airports into which private planes fly, he said.
Freedom to control one's own security is a big draw of private planes, according to Cassandra Bosco, spokeswoman for the National Business Aviation Association in Washington. "You know who's on the airplane, you know who's piloting the airplane, you know what they brought on board," she said.
Travelers can also reach destinations more quickly, and that can provide a competitive edge. Airplanes piloted by executives are "customer-service wonder machines," said Steve Priessman, owner of Cougar Aviation Inc. in West Chicago, Ill., which offers aircraft rental and flight training, including the Be a Pilot lesson.
Drew Steketee, president of Be a Pilot, said it took as little as 40 hours of flight training to get a private pilot's license, though 50 to 70 hours was more typical. Lessons to earn a license cost anywhere from $3,000 to more than $7,000 in New York and other areas where the cost of living is high, he said. A typical basic four-seater single-engine aircraft rents for $80 to $100 an hour, depending on the aircraft's age, he added.
The cost of owning an airplane varies enormously. According to J. Mac McClellan, editor of Flying Magazine, a four-seat single-engine propeller airplane with a cruise speed of about 150 m.p.h. costs $150,000 to $200,000 new and would cost about $100 an hour to fly, including fuel, maintenance, insurance, hangar and other expenses; business jets range from about $4 million to more than $40 million.
For James Shepard, owner of a Grumman two-seater and president of the James V. Shepard Company, a general contracting firm in Paso Robles, Calif., it is all in the timing. "I am able to set meetings with clients on virtually a moment's notice and offer service that few of my competitors can," he said. "Once, I was about to lose a design contract due to a conflict between an architect and client. I didn't get wind of the problem until midafternoon. I called both sides and said, 'Let's meet at 6 p.m.' '' His one-hour flight allowed him to close the $1.5 million deal. "That would never have happened without the airplane," he said. "The next day would not have been good enough."
Being your own pilot is also unrivaled for reaching far-flung places. In southeast Alaska, the Rev. Michael Schwarte commutes by Cessna 182 every week, over glaciers and snowy mountain peaks, serving two churches, on islands separated by ocean and reachable only by plane or ferry. On Sundays he officiates at 9 a.m. Mass at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Petersburg, then soars over rugged terrain, often in poor visibility and strong winds, to 11 a.m. Mass at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Wrangell.
"By flying, I am able to have Mass at both places each weekend so they don't go without Sunday service," Father Schwarte said, explaining that the area has a shortage of priests. He said his flying time was about 20 minutes, compared with a three-hour ferry ride. "On a nice day, you can't beat it," said Father Schwarte, who flies approximately 200 hours a year in the Diocese of Juneau's single-engine four-seater. "The only thing is, we only get about four nice days a month. My prayer life has increased a hundredfold since I started flying."
But for all the rough riding, getting there can be all the fun. "I am converting commuting time into hobby time," said Ken Dunn, the dean of Carnegie Mellon University's business school, who commutes most weeks between his homes in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. "Since I have taken the job at Carnegie Mellon, I rarely go up and fly just for fun because I'm already doing that when I commute."
Mr. Dunn, who has bought himself a seven-passenger turboprop for the commute and a 10-passenger jet for longer trips, called flying a business tool that lets him advance the school's visibility and meet with alumni and corporate recruiters who hire his students. And when staff members from different areas convene and work together on board, the plane "accomplishes the same purpose as a corporate retreat," he said.
On a cross-country flight that included his deputy dean and director of the masters programs, being together for several hours allowed them to talk about introducing a new curriculum.
"The quiet, private space with a table between seats that face each other is a great work environment that does not exist on commercial planes," Mr. Dunn said. "Putting creative people together in such a space for a long flight often produces valuable conversations and new ideas."