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Home for the holidays

There are worse things than being late for dinner

General aviation pilots can be forgiven for taking a jaundiced view of airline travel. Having the experience of choosing when to leave, then walking directly to a waiting aircraft makes the inconvenient schedules and hurry-up-and-wait process of bag checking and security screening even more annoying.
Illustration by Leigh Caulfield
Illustration by Leigh Caulfield

The indignity of being shuttled through a hub-and-spoke system designed for freight makes preflight planning a labor of love by comparison and elevates the joys of aviating, navigating, and communicating to ecstasy. And the past two years have done nothing to make commercial travel more attractive. The ongoing spread of infection heightens the stress of mingling with crowds, even among the vaccinated. Regardless of how they feel about mask mandates, most people don’t like wearing them, and reports of appalling behavior—even physical assault—by unruly passengers intensify any misgivings about associating with strangers.

For owners in particular, holiday travel to visit friends or family seems like the perfect use for personal aircraft—at least within the appropriate range. (Spending three days flying a Cessna 182 from Connecticut to California is a specialized taste.) The day before Thanksgiving is consistently the year’s busiest on the airlines, amplifying the ripple effects of delays and cancellations. Setting your own timetable and arriving closer to your destination while avoiding the crowds has unquestionable appeal—provided everyone can maintain the requisite flexibility.

Passengers who must know six months in advance that they’ll leave Wednesday morning and arrive by 3 p.m. aren’t likely to be comfortable with recurrent weather checks or rejiggered takeoff times. Trying to please them has led pilots into unfortunate decisions. A VFR pilot who flew into a mountain near Asheville, North Carolina, was trying to get his daughter to the next stop on her book tour, a reading scheduled for that evening (and he told the controller, “Looks like we’ll try some scud-running”). Skipping a planned fuel stop to save time could instead make you “late” in the most permanent sense. Launching with a known mechanical problem that “doesn’t seem that bad” courts an in-flight emergency. Even a fight with a furious spouse marooned in some FBO beats an in-flight break-up in a thunderstorm encounter.

Better weather’s always coming, but it decides when, not you. If missing Grandpa’s blessing before dinner is unthinkable, shake down the aircraft for discrepancies in time to get them fixed, and then go while conditions clearly meet your limitations, even if that means leaving three days early. Likewise, be ready to head home earlier than planned if you can’t miss work Monday morning.

And remind everyone that no mode of travel is guaranteed to arrive on time. Severe storms have shut down major airline hubs overnight, stranding some passengers for days. Trains can be delayed by track conditions, extreme weather, or just slower traffic ahead on the same line. Interstate 95 was closed for three hours in September after a truck clipped an overpass, immobilizing thousands of cars. Any driver who hadn’t allowed, say, six hours for a two-hour trip got there late.

David Jack Kenny admits to having written this on a Southwest flight from BWI to ABQ.

ASI Staff

David Jack Kenny

David Jack Kenny is a freelance aviation writer.

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