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The lighter side of charter
Options at the low end of the charter market-single-engine turbine and piston aircraft as well as VLJs (very light jets)-are expanding. That's good news if you've been priced out of larger jets, want to upgrade an automobile or airline trip without busting the bank or are looking to save money on short flights or when traveling without a large group. The safety record of single-engine turboprops over the past two decades and the sophistication and safety systems of modern piston aircraft make both suitable for short-haul charter. And if you're reluctant to give up twinjet security, there is always the VLJ solution.
If this sounds like déjà vu all over again, then you recall that DayJet, SATSAir, Pogo and other "air taxi" companies promised similar low-cost charter, but instead most folded. Today's light charter providers lack the grand ambitions and bankrolls of some earlier outfits, but operators aren't only standing by, they're flying.
Here are some factors to consider before you step down from a business jet to light charter:
Range, capacity and comfort. Be realistic about the missions a particular light aircraft can accommodate, and your personal comfort needs. Though a Pilatus PC-12 single-engine turboprop is roomier than many light business jets, most cabins will probably be smaller than what you're used to. For example, the four-place Cirrus SR-22, the workhorse of the light-charter piston single fleet, "has no bathroom, and you're going to have to wear a headset [to converse with fellow passengers]," said Michael Klein, president and CEO of OpenAir, a Cirrus charter operator in Gaithersburg, Md. "If you're taking more than two people, it can get a little tight, and a trip of any more than two or three hours is going to be uncomfortable."
Haroon Qureshi, director of marketing and sales for ImagineAir, which charters SR-22s out of Lawrenceville, Ga., suggested another rule of thumb: "It's a good tool for two people looking to replace a three- to eight-hour drive."
Even a cabin-class single turboprop with a potty may require you to adjust. In a Piper Meridian with a 265-knot cruise speed (comparable to a twin turboprop), "You sit low to the ground, like in a sports car, not up high like in a King Air," said Kevin Mock, owner of SkySouth Aviation in Burlington, N.C., which offers the Meridian as well as the twin-engine piston Beechcraft Baron. "It's like being in a BMW for two hours."
If you wouldn't be comfortable flying in a single-engine airplane, consider the VLJ option, which is becoming more available.
"When the average charter customer says, '[Single-engine aircraft are] not for me, I need a twin-engine jet,' that's where Linear has had great success so far," said Bill Herp, founder and CEO of Linear Air, which operates five Eclipse 500 VLJs from Hanscom Field in Bedford, Mass.
Linear Air was an early adopter of the VLJ light charter model, but then came the bankruptcy of Eclipse Aviation, manufacturer of the Eclipse 500. Eclipse aircraft are now supported by Eclipse Aerospace, an aftermarket company, which enabled Linear Air to resume use of the aircraft in February. With more than 250 Eclipse 500s flying, expect more of them to show up in the charter fleet.
"We liken it to an executive car service," Herp said of the Eclipse 500 experience. "You're not going to get up and walk around, but for a trip of one to two hours, it's very quiet, very comfortable and very roomy relative to the personal space."
Money and time. Light charter can offer significant savings. ImagineAir charges about $630 per hour for its SR-22s, with no positioning fees. Open Air's SR-22s cost about $595 per hour and $300 per hour for positioning flights. SkySouth's Meridians are $900 per hour. An Eclipse charter costs $1,600 per hour occupied at Linear Air and positioning fees are $1,100 per hour.
Light charter can save time as well as money for short flights in some high-traffic areas. "We're able to shortcut a lot of the air traffic route structure that larger [charter] aircraft can't," said Eric Zipkin, president of Tradewind Aviation in Oxford, Conn., which operates Pilatus PC-12s, Cessna Grand Caravans and a Daher-Socata TBM 850. "We're dealing with local controllers, and we move a lot more quickly."
Even a single-engine piston can give jets a run "anywhere in the Northeast," according to Klein. "At lower altitudes, we can go in a straight line, and [jets at higher altitudes] are speed restricted," he said.
Finding reliable operators. If you're used to working with a charter broker, don't expect much help in navigating the lighter side of charter.
"We don't get a lot of referrals downhill," said Mock. "[Charter brokers] won't refer customers down to us. There's not much margin in it for them."
Financial payback aside, the light side of charter isn't as well known or as audited as the traditional Part 135 world. Wyvern won't audit single-engine charter aircraft or those operated by a single pilot. ARG/US will audit single-engine piston charter operators, but won't grant ratings (Gold, Gold Plus or Platinum) to them, giving little incentive for these operators to pay for the audit.
You can search for light charter aircraft by type and location through the Air Charter Guide online. Also, the National Business Aviation Association maintains a listing of charter operators and their aircraft. Once you've identified an operator, conduct due diligence. Check the FAA for accidents or incidents involving the company or its aircraft.
"In the low end of the charter market, people should ask about the pilots flying them," Mock suggested. "How experienced are they? How many hours [of flight time] do they have? Are they ATPs [Airline Transport Pilots, the highest rating]? Those are smart questions to ask at this level."
Fortunately, because of the slowdown in the airline business, all charter operators have access to well-qualified, experienced pilots. With good pilots, established operators and capable aircraft, you can now take the lighter side of charter seriously.