Under New Management, Wings Field Is Changing Course
The historic airfield's new operators hope to make private aviation services more available to the general public
More than 5.4 million people will clog the nation's airports over the Christmas and New Year's holidays, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA). Along the way, they will strain the patience of reservation clerks, flight attendants and each other as they navigate an obstacle course of baggage checks, security screenings, and last minute gate changes on their way to a holiday rendezvous with loved ones. Then, a few days later, they'll do it all over again.
But a select few of those taking to the air won't have to worry about any of that. They'll have an entire flight lounge to themselves before boarding a private charter plane. They'll have that to themselves, too. They won't walk through a body scanner or check any bags.
Donald Trump? Kanye West?
Not quite. Just regular folks, flying out of small airports like Wings Field in Blue Bell. One of the historic cradles of the aviation industry, Wings Field, like other small airfields, has begun to recast itself as an efficient, no-hassle alternative to the world of commercial airlines. The shift has been necessary for an industry that once relied heavily on the disposable income of aviation hobbyists to fund operations.
"[Commercial passengers] have to go through TSA screening, wait for an airline flight that gets delayed, [change planes] through a hub… you can get to Boston in an hour and fifteen minutes in these planes," said Régis de Ramel, one of the co-owners of Advanced Aircraft. The Lancaster-based company is in the first months of a 15-year agreement to operate Wings Field.
Getting your pilot's license to use Wings Field is optional, de Ramel said.
"They don't necessarily have to learn to fly," de Ramel added. "But if they want to, they can."
Beyond the "bucket list" crowd
During more robust economic times, airfields such as Wings Field—a "general aviation reliever airport" in the parlance of the Federal Aviation Administration—generated much of their revenue from recreational fliers.
"There were a lot of people who had 'flight lessons' on their 'bucket lists,'" de Ramel said.
That market has become less dependable, but de Ramel believes his industry is a lot more accessible to typical travelers than it was twenty years ago.
"What we're offering is corporate-type transportation for your average business guy or entrepreneur," said de Ramel.
Karen Hamill, Advanced Aircraft's marketing director, thinks general aviation is a natural fit for a certain breed of particularly driven, highly motivated businessperson.
"This is perfect for them. They get to fly fast. They get to do it themselves, if they want to. They're not taking any extra time out of their schedule to learn to fly, because it's happening while they're on their way to something they need to do anyway," Hamill said.
De Ramel said a number of the company's customers were people who had to regularly conduct business in the western half of the state.
"'Why am I driving out to Johnstown in seven hours when I can [fly] it in 45 minutes?' That's their incentive," de Ramel said.
Costs comparable to other transportation
Hamill compared the costs of transporting a family of four from the Philadelphia area to Boston by car, by commercial airline, by Amtrak Acela train, and by one of Advanced Aircraft's planes.
If a member of the family is a pilot, the round trip takes about three and a half hours and costs about $938, Hamill said.
That compares to 13 hours and $80 in gas if going by car.
"You spend more, but that $859 gets you 10 hours of your life back," Hamill said.
By Hamill's reckoning, the same trip would take seven hours (including airport procedures) and cost about $1,300 via commercial airline while taking 10 hours and costing $663 on the Acela.
Perceptions of risk linger
When asked about the public's perception of general aviation as more dangerous than other forms of transportation, Hamill and other Advanced Aircraft personnel are quick to cite well-known statistics about the relative safety of aviation, commercial or private, when compared to automobile travel.
Hamill notes that the latest generation of Cirrus aircraft in use by the company is equipped with a parachute built into the fuselage itself, allowing the entire plane to float to the ground in the event of a catastrophic failure in the air.
Statistics and parachutes aside, the insurance industry is not convinced. If you decide to get your pilot's license, expect your life insurance premiums to take a noticeable jump. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (which was, incidentally, founded at Wings Field in 1939) offers its own brand of life insurance to members, with rates that are said to be comparable to industry norms.
People still fly for fun
Make no mistake: recreational flyers are still a big segment of the business. Hamill estimates that about half of Advanced Aircraft's customers are flying for fun.
"They go on missions, like, 'we're going to find the best crab cakes on the whole East Coast,'" Hamill said.
"It's a lot of fun, but it's also a tool. It's a like a car. You'll enjoy it more if the weather is nice, but you're not going to not drive your car because it's raining," Hamill said.
Regardless of whether it's for business or pleasure, the planes used in contemporary general aviation are a far cry from the spartan, winged tin cans of yesteryear. The Cirrus planes Advanced Aircraft uses for training and charter service are appointed like luxury cars, with leather upholstery and built-in satellite radio.
Hamill said people who start out as business flyers almost always wind up using their flight skills for personal reasons.
"It always spills over to personal use. Like, 'Why am I going to drive to the Jersey shore and dealing with summer traffic when I can fly there in 25 minutes?'" Once you start, it's so hard to do it the old way [i.e., driving]," Hamill said.
"Private aviation has become safer than ever, more convenient, and extremely comfortable," Hamill said.