Companies increasingly are chartering aircraft or using their own airplanes to help combat the high cost of commercial air travel and airport delays caused by increased security.
Many business travelers also feel safer these days using smaller airplanes, flown from out-of-the-way airports and piloted and maintained by people they know personally, some security experts and charter operators say.
"I think charters are a good answer" for companies concerned about the safety of their executives, said Peter Savage, a Baltimore security consultant and author of "The Safe Travel Book: A Guide for the International Traveler." "It reduces your exposure" to danger.
Air-charter companies say that since the Persian Gulf war broke out, they have received a flurry of calls from people looking into hiring planes by the hour or the day.
"We've noticed an increase in activity with respect to customers who have not chartered aircraft before," said Frank Milian, general manager of flight services for Atlantic Aviation, a major charter company based at Teterboro Airport in Northern New Jersey.
Mostly, prospective customers are not as concerned about their personal safety as they are about avoiding time-consuming delays encountered in airports, from both the stepped-up security and the routine congestion of commercial flying, the charter companies say.
"We're getting a lot more interest from large companies and from smaller companies and individuals," said Mark Timmerman, president of Custom Air Charter, based at the Northeast Philadelphia Airport.
Like most charter operators, Timmerman has calculated how the cost of hiring one of his six airplanes for a day compares favorably with flying on scheduled airlines if passengers had to pay full fare and if the time saved is considered.
For instance, he said, hiring one of his twin-engine Piper Navajos for a round trip from Northeast Philadelphia to the Bedford Airport, near the Route 128 high-tech corridor around Boston, would cost $1,352 for the flight, plus $60.50 an hour for waiting time on the ground. So an all-day trip, including eight hours of waiting time, would cost $1,836.
Four people taking the same trip on a regularly scheduled airline would have to drive one or more cars to Philadelphia International Airport; parking would cost $6 to $30 a day, depending on the lot chosen; flying to Boston's Logan Airport would cost $410 per person round trip, and renting a car and driving to the Route 128 area for a day would cost about $60 to $70, including gas and tolls.
Thus, just in out-of-pocket costs, chartering a plane for four would be only slightly more expensive than taking commercial flights.
For a short trip, such as Philadelphia to Boston, the flying time aboard the Piper Navajo is about the same as aboard a commercial jet, Timmerman noted. But the charter customers could save as much as two hours on each end of the trip in time spent driving to the airports, parking, clearing security and waiting for flights, he said.
One big user of its own corporate aircraft, Inductotherm Industries Inc., an industrial furnace-maker that sells its products worldwide, has found that its salesmen, some of whom also are (( pilots, can make twice as many calls in a given period of time by flying company planes, said president Henry M. Rowan.
Offering to fly the senior executives of a potential customer from one part of the country to another to visit plants where Inductotherm products are already in use also is a highly effective way of making sales, he said.
"We try to use the planes less as an executive perk than as a sales tool," said Rowan, whose company has its own runway at its Rancocas, N.J., headquarters.
Although some security consultants have expressed alarm recently at the relatively low level of security at many of the nation's small airports, other independent experts and the Federal Aviation Administration don't believe there is a serious problem.
At general-aviation airports used by corporate and charter aircraft, "most people know one another, and they know when outsiders are around," consultant Savage said. "Security is more casual, but they usually know when there is someone who doesn't belong there."
Savage suggested that security was much higher at major airports and around prominent U.S. government buildings and symbols because they were far more likely to be targets of terrorism.
FAA spokesman Paul Steucke said the level of security at a general-aviation facility was determined by the historic level of risk there.
"Past experience indicates that terroristic threats to aviation are aimed at situations that will provide a considerable amount of publicity," he said.
"Because of that, the risk for large airports and large air carriers is considered to be greater than it is for small airports and small carriers.
"If you were a terrorist, you probably would not fool around with a four-passenger Beech Baron."