Originally created 04/03/00

Cover story: A soaring industry

On any given day during Masters Week, you'll find more than 150 private planes vying for space at Augusta Regional Airport at Bush Field.

On a typical day, the airport will experience about 217 operations (takeoffs and landings). That mushrooms to 618 during the Masters, with most of the increase from private aviation.

The Masters is a truly busy time at the airport, but the facility sees plenty of noncommercial activity on a regular basis. Historically, more than half of the airport's traffic is general aviation, which encompasses everything from multimillion-dollar corporate jets to single-engine propeller planes.

General-aviation traffic at the facility grew more than 17 percent in 1998. And it's not the only commercial airport experiencing an increase.

Recent studies by the Federal Aviation Administration illustrate the growth. General-aviation traffic at major airports rose 5 percent from 1998 to 1999.

Sales of new aircraft during the same period grew 12 percent for piston-engined planes, 17 percent for turboprops and 24 percent for jets.

In all, manufacturer billings grew from $5.1 billion to $7.5 billion, according to the U.S. Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Key indicators show general aviation inching toward levels that haven't been seen since the industry peaked in the late 1970s, association spokesman Warren Morningstar said.

"The industry is healthy," he said. "It's growing across the board."

And more people are taking to the skies. Student pilot certificates have jumped more than 10 percent during the past few years, according to the association.

The current economy has made owning and maintaining a plane affordable for corporations big and small.

Business owners and executives fed up with commercial-airline service have discovered that chartering a private plane to regional destinations lets them get there and back in time for dinner.

Aiken businessmen Ron Grandy and Doug Kingsmore charter an Aiken Air Service plane to Greenville, S.C., three times a month to check on their Southern Weaving manufacturing plant, which produces industrial webbing used to tie down tractor-trailer loads.

"If we drove, we would be leaving very early in the morning and getting home late in the evening. That's not a very efficient use of our time," Mr. Grandy said.

Realizing that saving time is more crucial to executives than ever before, the general-aviation industry is making it easier for companies to access planes through fractional ownership.

Companies offering fractional ownership programs, such as NetJets and Flexjet, sell companies a percentage of the plane's ownership, sort of like a condo timeshare.

Fractional owners share the plane, the pilot and assume no maintenance costs. For example, a company owning a one-eighth share of a Learjet 31A through Flexjet gets 100 hours of flight time for $800,000.

A Hilton Head Island, S.C., company, CarinaStar, is making fractional ownership viable for small to medium-size companies with sales in the $1 million-$50 million range.

The company is selling quarter shares in more affordable planes, such as the single-engine Beech Baron and twin-engine Beech Bonanza. Either plane can beat a scheduled commercial flight from Hilton Head to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., by two hours, company President Michael Rindler said.

Companies benefiting from his fractional ownership program are those that normally charter an average of one to two flights per week.

"When you charter, you are buying a service. When you buy a share, it becomes a depreciable asset, so there are tax advantages to it," he said.

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486.


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