Ways to Travel

The recent loss of my Brother-in-Law (William A. Prall, 1943 – 2013) left me with a bit of a problem: How to get my 90-year-old Dad from South Carolina to Pennsylvania and back with an absolute minimum of wear-and-tear. I actually started thinking about this a couple months ago, knowing what was coming.

The obvious answer would be to take an airline, but this would require us to either make a connection(s) somewhere, possibly between concourses in separate zip codes, and/or drive to/from one of the major regional hubs multiple hours away. Then there’s all the standing in lines, security checks, parking lots that require GPS to navigate, cramped seats, and so on. I really did not want to subject my Dad to all that if I could at all avoid it.

I considered many options (I ruled out bicycle and kayaking right off). Near as I could tell, you just can’t get there from here by bus or train, and even getting close would take a good bit of time, as would just driving. For a variety of reasons, my own single engine airplane would not be a good choice. My Dad isn’t one to fly, and even being on a large airliner is a bit stressful.

I got to wondering what it would cost to charter a flight on something like a small turboprop. This might be a big enough airplane for my Dad to be reasonably comfortable, and would take out the entire “airline experience”. Since I know something about aviation, I knew it wouldn’t be cheap (there’s a saying that it takes two things to fly: airspeed and money, and airspeed is debatable), but then again, my research showed that short-notice airline travel would cost a small fortune anyway, even if we could get seats when we needed them.

One might wonder, “how does one go about chartering a flight?” It’s easy. Call up one or more charter operators (most larger airports, and many smaller ones, will have at least one), and tell ‘em what you need. These companies operate a lot like the big scheduled air carriers, but without the schedules and “established routes”. You go when you want to go and where you want to go, and a variety of aircraft are available. “On demand” and “air taxi” are terms that you may see. They’re governed by Federal Aviation Regulations part 135, which has many of the same requirements as the scheduled air carriers. There are, of course, differences to allow for flying anywhere and everywhere whenever with many different aircraft.

I’m sure any charter operator can help you figure out the best airports to use since they’ll fly to airports the airlines can’t use with their behemoth-sized aircraft, or just won’t bother with, but knowing what I know I was able to pick Allentown, PA as the best option. I considered Mt. Pocono airport, but it’s not all that much closer to where we needed to get to, and has no ILS approach. As it turned out, on the day we wanted to return home, Mt. Pocono was well below approach minimums in fog and basically unusable.

Anyway, I called around, and, yes, if short-notice airline travel would cost a small fortune, this would cost a modest fortune, but one that I could afford, if only once. We could go directly from the Greenville, SC right straight to Allentown, PA, non-stop, in a little over 2 hours. We could go and return when we wanted to. Cost is based on the actual cost of the flight, however long it takes, including any weather or ATC (Air Traffic Control) delays, and the “empty” trips for the aircraft to return to base and then come back to pick us up later, however the operators were happy to provide a “feasibility number”, and later when I got serious about doing this, a quote.

As an aside, I’ve had what I guess some might call a bucket list item to go out and do something like the “other half” does it. Do something and just not give a second (or even first) though about the cost. Go first class. Be “king for a day”. But I never really came across something I wanted to do that way. Get skybox tickets to a race or ball game? Meh…. limo ride out to dinner? Nah… Charter a flight to Pennsylvania, and maybe get to spend a little time up in the “front office” of something that’s a lot more airplane than my little Tiger? Bingo.

I called up Venture Aviation, an operator at Greenville Downtown, where I keep my own airplane, and got a real quote, which matched the rough number I was given previously. After that, it was just a matter of waiting for the actual event to occur, which, as it turned out, was only a few days. A phone call and some Emailed paperwork got everything set up.

As it turned out, I have serious doubts we could have done this on an airline anyway. My Dad had an appointment on Monday afternoon that we really needed to keep, and couldn’t be moved up, and the first services for my Brother-in-law were on Tuesday evening. We’d have been hard-pressed to make it there on time. With the charter, we were able to have a normal breakfast at home in South Carolina, and be at my Sister’s home in Pennsylvania by lunchtime, with none of the frazzling that seems to accompany airline travel.

The pilots were professional, helpful, and accommodated my request to stick my beak up in the cockpit once we reached cruise flight in the King Air 200 on the way up:

and the King Air 90 on the way back:

Interestingly enough, I could at least identify everything in the cockpit. I might not know just how or when to use the thing, but I at least knew what it was or what it was telling me. Guess I picked up a few things in almost 40 years of fiddling around with airplanes. It was neat watching the pilots work together during the busy portions of the flight: teamwork in action.

The aircraft were impeccable: clean, comfortable (with just the two of us, we had more leg room than leg), and in good operating condition to my casual, but Airframe and-Powerplant-mechanic trained eye. This is personal service. While these flights had no cabin attendants (such service is, I’m sure, available on larger aircraft), the pilots provided safety information, kept us informed, and answered all questions. They also helped with our baggage (another advantage is that we could travel a bit “heavier” than had we taken an airline) and generally made sure we were treated well. It’s worth noting that these pilots are also responsible for all aspects of the aircraft, including tidying up and making sure the snacks and beverages are on board.

I also need to mention the line crews. These are the folks that work at an FBO and provide the
fuel and other services for the aircraft on the ground. They also help with baggage and ground transportation, and create a seamless experience for us passenger types. The FBO also handled having our rental car there when we arrived, and handled it’s return, making that easy as well.

There’s a lot written out there about tips for these kinds of operations. Y’all can use Google as well as I can, so I’ll just add that, to me, when to tip is a matter of personal service. If someone is going to directly look after me, tote my “stuff”, and personally see to it that I’m happy, that deserves some consideration.

All that said, I am unlikely to be a repeat charter customer, just because this is a bit “out of my league”. But in this case, this was the right choice: my Dad got his trip safely and expeditiously, and it all worked out splendidly.

It was a great trip, even if the reason for the trip wasn’t. The final bill came in a little under the quoted price, but having my Dad there for the family was priceless.

Should some similar circumstance come up again, I’ll re-do the decision making process, and, again, give due consideration to all available options. In the meantime, sigh, back to mowing my grass and doing my grocery shopping.

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