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Big checks, small change

Mark R. Twombly flies charter flights from southwest Florida.

Mark R. Twombly flies charter flights from southwest Florida.

So you own a jet. Make that part of a jet. A one-quarter share, if you have to ask. Still, it's a jet, with all the good stuff that implies: turbofan engines; no-worries single-engine climb performance; pressurized, air-conditioned cabin; weather-topping max cruising altitude of 41,000 feet; thrust reversers and anti-lock braking system; seven leather-upholstered passenger seats, individual entertainment displays, refreshment center with cold drinks and hot coffee, and a usable biffy. Oh, and two professional pilots up front to get you there and back safely. Owning a jet, even a fourth of one, gets you that good stuff, and all you have to do is write big checks. So it's no surprise that, just like ordinary people, a lot of big-check-writing jet owners watch their pennies. So do the people who manage the aircraft and the pilots who fly them.

Len and I were scheduled to take the jet owner, his wife, and five others to Nassau on a Thursday. They planned to spend three nights and return that Sunday. Christi, who does the scheduling, also does the math. That means comparing the cost of keeping the crew with the airplane in Nassau versus buying a pair of airline tickets to send us home and then back to Nassau for the return flight. On a multi-day trip it's usually cheaper to do that than pay for accommodations and meals for two pilots for several days.

I'm no fan of riding the airlines, especially when it means a long wait in the terminal at Nassau followed by a short hop to Miami or Fort Lauderdale, then a long wait to clear customs, then renting a car and driving three hours to the west coast of Florida, only to do it all over again in reverse three days later. There's that, plus the undeniable fact that there are worse places to be posted for a few days than Nassau. But it's not about the pilots. We're here to serve the big-check-writing, quarter-share owner of the jet.

So Christi did the math, and not surprisingly the results argued for airmailing the crew back and forth. However, the owner wanted to return in the early afternoon on Sunday, and based on airline schedules that would not be possible. The best we could do was arrive at 5 p.m., clear Bahamian customs, get to the FBO across the field, and prepare the airplane — all in one hour. That was far too optimistic a schedule, the airline fares were far too expensive, and the deciding factor — the owner was insistent on leaving at 2 p.m. instead of 6.

So it was decided: The crew would remain in Nassau for the duration, booked into a hotel that was a real bargain by Nassau standards. The reason, no doubt, was its location in a less-than-desirable part of town. A few minutes on yielded two rooms for three nights at the British Colonial Hilton on Bay Street in downtown Nassau, for the same price as the bargain hostel on the wrong side of the street. The only catch — we had to pay for the rooms at the time of booking, and there would be no refund if the trip was cancelled. Deal. A few pennies saved, at no cost in crew comfort.

Now it was time to do the math on a much larger expense — fuel. When you're sucking down 1,400 pounds/200 gallons of Jet A on a one-hour flight, it makes dollars and cents to devote some thought to the fuel strategy. Research revealed that we could save the owner several hundred dollars on the round trip by tankering — departing with enough fuel to get us to Nassau and back home again, with reserves, instead of buying fuel in Nassau for the return leg. The savings even took into account the $200 facility fee that Million Air Nassau charges customers who don't upload a minimum amount of gas.

All things being equal, we prefer to purchase fuel from the FBOs we patronize, but in this case the savings to the owner were too significant to ignore. So, deal. A lot of pennies saved, at no cost other than a slight performance penalty because of the heaver weight of the airplane on the outbound leg.

If we crewmembers were congratulating ourselves on our frugality on behalf of the check-writing owner, it all turned to consternation as we prepared to depart Nassau. The owner and his family were late in arriving at the FBO. Hey, no problem — you own the jet. You can be late and, believe me, you won't miss the flight.

While we waited for our passengers, the radar showed that storms were exploding all over south Florida. It looked increasingly like we might not be able to land at our intended destination. No problem — that's what reserves are for. Except there was a problem. We had to clear U.S. Customs, so we were limited to a very few alternates and they were disappearing under red and yellow splotches as well.

Faced with the prospect of lengthy diversions to give the weather its due, Len and I decided the prudent action would be to take all of those pennies we had saved the owner and spend them on some comfort fuel. (As in, "Thanks to that extra fuel we took on in Nassau I sure feel a lot more comfortable about the 30-minute hold we were just issued.")

Turns out we didn't need it. The delay in leaving Nassau was perfectly timed. Just as we arrived at our original destination the weather was moving off the field.

Did the owner complain about the wasted cost of the comfort fuel, even though fuel should never be considered an unnecessary expense? Naw. He's used to writing big checks. That was small change.

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