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Charter your own flight, forget hassles at airport

by Thomas Ropp Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2006 at 12:47 PM

Will the feds in their efforts to stop terrorists screw up commercial flights so bad that people will find it easier to charter private planes for trips????

Check-in to takeoff in 5 minutes, and no more metal detectors

Imagine flying to Europe without going through metal detectors or X-ray machines, where there is only five minutes between check-in and takeoff.

It happens every day across the nation as companies fed up with long lines at security checkpoints have turned to jet charter services to whisk their busy executives around the globe to conduct business in half the time at a cost barely more than a first-class commercial fare.

Interest in business charters, which spiked after Sept. 11, 2001, is in the aviation spotlight once again since the Aug. 10 ban on liquids, gels and creams aboard commercial airline flights.

Charter companies across the country have reported an increase in sales and inquiries since the latest security measure.

James Coyne, president of the National Air Transportation Association, said charters experienced 20 percent growth since Sept. 11 and a 20 to 70 percent bump since Aug. 10.

Tim Spahr, director of charter sales for Pinnacle Aviation, based at Scottsdale Airport, said sales have jumped 45 percent since the liquids ban.

"It's incredible," Spahr said. "And we've had a significant number of first-time callers who specifically sight airport security hassles as the reason for considering charter."

Spahr said the biggest spikes have been from local corporations requesting the larger, heavier jets going to Europe.

"Part of the interest is due to concerns in general over flying on commercial aircraft right now, especially to Europe," Spahr said.

Britt Morque, marketing manager for Swift Aviation at Sky Harbor International Airport, also cites an increase in business since the liquids ban. Her new customers also point to airport hassles as the impetus for going charter.

"I think it can be a big factor for someone who's already a first-class commercial traveler for them to try out private travel," Morque said.

Spahr and Morque said although most of their customers are business travelers, an increasing number of individuals and families are looking to charter for vacation and pleasure trips.

Most of the Valley's airports have at least one charter fixed-base operator (an airport-based business). Scottsdale Airport leads the pack with 12 charters, specializing in everything from moving top executives around the globe to day trips for tourists.

Aero Jet Services at Scottsdale Airport caters more to the rich and famous. Lonnie Roberts, director of operations, said his business is also seeing a boom this year, peaking right after the ban.

"Immediately after it, we had a tremendous influx of calls requesting quotes," Roberts said

The security factor

Contrary to what some think, jet charters are required to have security. The Transportation Security Administration mandates specific guidelines for aircraft 12,500 to 100,000 pounds (the 12-5 rule), which includes most charter jets.

But these security measures focus more on advance screening of individuals rather than the metal-detector-type mass scrutiny directed at commercial travelers.

"We work very closely with the 17 associations that make up the General Aviation Coalition to ensure security mandates are based on threat analysis and risk management, balanced with common sense," said Jennifer Marty-Peppin, a Western regional Transportation Security spokeswoman.

Spahr said charter companies know most of their customers.

"Since they pay in advance, there are certain profiles we look for," Spahr said. "If we don't feel a passenger is safe or coherent, we cancel the trip."

However, there is another group of charters that require virtually no security. These are propeller-driven aircraft under 12,500 pounds that generally serve the leisure market and commonly make small trips from the Valley to popular markets like Las Vegas or the Grand Canyon.

Some charters in this group offer limited scheduled service. Critics argue that the scheduled-service charters are particularly vulnerable to terrorists because they need no security and their flights are advertised in advance.

Operators of these small charters argue that their pilots are trained to scrutinize passengers, and the security agency counters that these charter companies have little risk of becoming terrorist targets because they fly light single-engine aircraft.

Vision Air is a scheduled charter service that began passenger service earlier this year between Williams Gateway Airport in Mesa and Las Vegas.

Leigh Kimball, marketing consultant for Vision Air's parent company, Vision Holidays, said his type of charter has not seen a jump in business due to the liquids ban.

Other factors

Easier access isn't the only reason charters appeal to those who can afford them. Charter customers can tailor their flights, including meals, to their own specifications. A charter is also available 24/7, and at many smaller to medium size airports, personal vehicles or limousines are permitted on the tarmac, so charter customers can literally be delivered right to and from their aircraft.

Confidentiality is also highly prized by charter customers, which include very high-profile executives, elected officials, attorneys and celebrities.

John Teets, Paradise Valley resident and longtime Dial Corp. chairman, insists that the adage about time being money holds true, which is why businesses that fly charter have a significant edge. Teets flies charter and owns his own private jet.

"You're in control and not dangling around an airport all day," Teets said.

Costs to consider

Charter jets are still not an option for companies or individuals on a budget.

But Spahr said the cost is coming down as lighter, more fuel-efficient jets like the new Eclipse come into use.

Spahr said jets are currently chartered from ,100 to ,000 an hour depending on size.

He said many companies have discovered that when they send five or six executives on a business trip, the cost per employee comes out to about a high-end ticket on commercial airlines.

That's because companies save money on food, accommodations and rental cars because of time saved using charter and the ability of charter aircraft to fly into smaller markets that commercial airlines don't serve.

Currently, jet charter companies have 45,000 regular customers a year and 150,000 who fly once a year. But Coyne predicts that total will double with the introduction of the more fuel-efficient, lighter jets.

Coyne predicts the hourly rate could then drop as low as ,200.

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