If you know me (and if you’re bothering to actually read this blog, there’s a good chance that’s true), you know I’m an aviation “enthusiast,” to put it mildly. I won’t publicly admit I’m crazy about aviation because the FAA might ground me for mental health reasons, but I’m sure you can draw your own unscientific and unproven-in-a-court-of-law conclusions. I love to fly. I love to fly because you can’t beat the views. I love to fly because it takes skill and concentration but is simultaneously exciting and relaxing. I love to fly because I can take day-trips to places it would take others a weekend to make.
When I try to share my “passion” for aviation, it’s not uncommon for me to hear responses like:
That must be fun, but flying is really expensive, right? I mean, I’ve heard aviation gas is really pricey.
I worry sometimes that folks are using the assumption of avgas price as an excuse to never consider learning to fly. Becoming a pilot, of course, is not for everyone; and yes, avgas costs more per gallon than car gas; but it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison.
To help illustrate, let’s look at the fuel and time costs for cars versus airplanes. The devil’s in the details, they say, so I’m going to use a whole bunch of averages and assumptions I pulled from some quick Google searches.
Exact results will vary, of course; but to get things started, let’s list out my assumptions:
- Traveling as a family of 4
- 2 adults
- 1 teenager
- 1 less-than-6-year-old
- Driving at posted road speed limits for the route
- Fuel burn is 23.6 miles per gallon (national average)
- Gas is $3 per gallon (national average)
- Flying an average (and extremely common) Cessna 172
- Cruising at 140 mph
- Burns about 9 gallons per hour, so we’ll get about 15.5 miles per gallon at cruise speed
- Avgas is $5.20 per gallon (national average)
Port Orchard to Spokane
Let’s start with a fairly long and mostly straight trip from my home town of Port Orchard to Spokane. Why Spokane? Because the trip has lengthy sections that are mostly straight, and the trip is long enough that hopefully unique road patterns can average themselves out. With all that in mind, here’s what the trip ends up looking like:
- 320 miles total driving distance
- 4h 55m drive time
- 13.6 gallons of car gas consumed
- Total cost of the trip = $40.70
- 254 miles total flying distance
- 1h 48m flight time
- 16.4 gallons consumed
- Total cost of the trip = $85.20
So yes, the cost of flying in this example is a little over twice as much as driving. 2.09 times as much. But to be fair, one must note that the time required to make the journey is approaching thrice the duration. 2.7 times as much. Is it worth it to you to spend $44.50 and save 3 hours and 7 minutes in travel time?
Given that the median household income was $51,939 in 2013, that would put the average hourly value of a household at $25 per hour (very roughly). The additional cost per hour of flying versus driving from Port Orchard to Spokane is about $14.30, so it would seem that for a strong majority of Americans, flying in this scenario is better than driving.
Port Orchard to Roche Harbor
So far, we’ve been looking at a more-or-less straight trip where the airplane isn’t really doing all that much for us against the car other than speed. My family and I live in western Washington State, though. We live in a place where a drive from point A to point B will almost never result in anything that even approaches the concept of a straight line. So for a counter example, let’s look at one of my favorite routes: a trip from Port Orchard to Roche Harbor in the San Juan Islands.
- 174 miles total driving distance
- 4h 37m drive time plus about an hour on a ferry = 5h 37m
- 7.37 gallons of car gas consumed
- Cost of gas consumed = $22.11
- Ferry toll for family = $32.35 ($12.95 per adult * 2 + $6.45 for the teenager)
- Total cost of the trip = $54.46
- 79 miles total flying distance
- 0h 34m flight time
- 5.1 gallons consumed
- Total cost of the trip = $26.50
By flying instead of driving, I saved $27.96, which is about 51%. I also saved over 5 hours of travel time, or about 90%.
By flying instead of driving, I can make the trip in a tenth the time and at about half the cost. How do you like them apples?