Travelling by use of general aviation (GA) aircraft is extremely effective for pilots who take advantage of the benefits. Many times our job as an instructor is to convince our customers that becoming pilots is a logical choice, a useful skill, and something that is a good value. Is it really?
A proficient pilot can travel on their own schedule, to places of their choosing, in a great majority of weather conditions (assuming they are instrument rated and have an instrument capable aircraft), and without having to be subjected to limitations of airline destination cities and schedules that may not coordinate well with travel needs. Many times people need to travel to places that airlines don’t even serve, so GA could be the best option for these situations. I fly myself to my destinations any opportunity I can; in fact, I rarely choose to fly using airlines.. There is a drawback, however; the last mile or so of travel from the airport to a pilot’s destination can be difficult and in some cases nearly impossible.
It is commonly said that if you build a mile of highway, it will get you a mile, but if you build a mile of runway you can go anywhere. This may be true, but the problem is when you get “anywhere” it is usually very hard to get anywhere else. Sometimes airports seem to be isolated islands within the larger metropolitan areas in which they are placed, or even worse, are removed from the metro areas and located in the country on the fringe. Larger airports will typically have rental cars available, but many of the local airports that general aviation pilots visit have very limited public transportation available.
Solutions to this problem are limited and sometimes non-existent, depending on where you fly. In my own flying I regularly visit, Chicago, Oklahoma City, and Washington DC. Each of these offers different challenges and options. In Chicago, I can fly into Midway airport and the FBOs there are more than willing to give me a quick ride to drop me off or pick me up from the “El” that is just on the other side of the airport, giving me very good access to the city. This is one example of where flying GA works well. Oklahoma City is an example where it doesn’t work as well because there is no public transportation at the airport, so I am required to rent a car for even the shortest trip. Fortunately rental cars are available at the airport in Oklahoma City. Washington DC poses a different challenge. Like many large metro areas, there are no airports available that offer convenient directl access to public transportation. In DC it can be done, but is cumbersome for most GA pilots based on security restrictions. A pilot finds themselves subject to odd shuttle bus schedules from hotels or expensive and sometimes unreliable cab service. These three examples are places that I travel to regularly where GA actually works well, even with their challenges.
Many other places it simply is not effective to get off of the airport once you fly to your destination. At many rural airportsthere are no rental cars or public transportation available. Courtesy cars are available at limited locations, but these are becoming few and far between due to the costs of maintaining them, the insurance costs for their operation, and the liability of letting people who are not associated with the primary business or municipality use a vehicle. In some instances, a rental car can be delivered to an airport for an additional fee, and in even fewer cases shuttles to or from hotels or resorts may be available to pilots. In most cases, the last mile becomes a logistical problem. Pilots are reliant on rides from friends or family or even strangers to get off the airport to their destination. Sometimes this is simply too unreliable to plan a trip around, limiting the utility of GA as a means of travel. Perhaps the concept of roadable aircraft such as Terrafugia Transiton or the Samson Motorworks Switchblade will be the answer in the future; will “flight instructors” then have to teach driving on the roads too?
This is one problem we need to solve if we are going to increase the use of GA as a method for people to effectively travel to their destinations. The last mile from the airport to the destination is the killer in many cases and needs a solution.
Perhaps it is better rental car availability at the airports. Maybe it is a better system of courtesy cars. I would like to say a mass expansion of public transportation is an option, but I honestly just don’t think that it is in the cards here in the U.S. Concepts such as the “ZipCar” (http://www.zipcar.com/) may be a model that could be modified to be used at airports. Do pilots need to carry little scooters with them? Many times the decision to travel using GA is disregarded due to the limitations of the travel after the flight. Most GA airports simply can’t provide the local transportation services because of tight budgets to just stay alive. These services can’t be provided without charging fees to a few pilots who might use the services, and that would probably be cost prohibitive to most of the pilots.
In my own case, many times my destination is the airport due to my work with aviation related interests. This isn’t the case for most businesses because they need to do business away from the airport. Travel using GA aircraft could easily be a means of travel if the pilots could then find a way to get from the airport to their business destination. Because that is not the reality, most people choose a different means of travel. How do we sell this to our customers, the people we are teaching to fly, so they can then use it in their daily life? I don’t have a solution to the problem of the last mile, but if GA is going to ever really become a regularly used means of travel for more people the logistics of its use need to be more concrete. Is there a solution?