General aviation includes all kinds of unscheduled civil aviation, usually in light aircraft, including helicopters.
General aviation flying can be more flexible than commercial airlines, provide an astounding view, and are often the most practical way to reach next-to-impossible destinations.
Recreational flying, mapmaking, sightseeing, flight training, parachute jumping, agricultural crop dusting, policing, medical evacuation, firefighting, civilian search and rescue, wildlife research, news and traffic reporting all employ some form of general aviation. Mining, resource and offshore oil exploration firms rely on helicopters and light aircraft to reach remote points entirely inaccessible by road or rail travel. Hunting and fishing outfitters use small aircraft to go far off the beaten path; a few remote national parks are unreachable overland. A few niche applications (such as airlifting stray Manitoba polar bears out of Churchill village) might not be practical by any other method.
Even where alternatives exist, it can be the quickest way between two points that don't have a direct commercial airline service, or fast rail connection.
A light aircraft can actually use the same or less fuel as a normal passenger car over a similar distance. And it doesn't require asphalting or causing erosion for the entire distance from point A to point B. You don't have to think of a light aircraft as poor environmental choice. An off-the-grid location may incur far less environmental impact from the occasional bush plane than from construction of a permanent road or rail connection through hundreds of miles of virgin wilderness. Of course, that is foremost about true light aircraft. If you're a CEO or a rock band looking at hiring your own Learjet or flying your own 747 then you have to do the calculation yourself – all bets are off.
Light aircraft and helicopters don't have a safety record that's up there with jet aircraft, but you can expect safety more or less on par with road travel over the same distance. It still pays to check the record and practices of who you're flying with. Statistically – as with traffic accidents – safety incidents are usually caused by the pilot rather than the aircraft. If you're flying with a private (non-commercial) pilot, you want to be comfortable that they have the experience and attitude that you're comfortable with.
Common applications for general aviation in travel include:
- Sightseeing flights. Commercial organisations operating flights to give visitors a great view from above. These can be operated by either be fixed wing or Helicopters. Normally priced per person, but may need minimum volumes.
- Charter flights. Commercial point to point operations. You decide the route and time, and these operators will fly you there (usually for a fixed price per aircraft). At the low end, you can charter a two seater light aircraft and sit next to the pilot, or at the high end you can charter a jet that's out of the reach of most everyday travellers. Charter aircraft are also used by travel agencies for resort flights.
- Private aircraft are small planes owned and operated by individuals. You can rent aircraft from most mid-size regional airports, or you can own your own for touring. Or you can tag-along with a private pilot.
In addition to these, you may find yourself on a general aviation aircraft if your trip involves skydiving or other aerial sports, like aerobatics. Or, if you're flying to a remote location not serviced by regular passenger transit. Like a bush plane to the sparsely populated areas of Africa, Australia, northern Canada, the Alaskan bush and much of Central and South America. Or a resort shuttle to a coastal island. Or a transfer to an Antarctic base.
Sightseeing and air tours
Air charter companies fly where you want them and the time you want them to. Usually there is no need to wait in line to board or go through security queues, unless seats on the chartered flight are being offered for public resale.
If you're paying the bills, you get to choose the aircraft that meets your requirements. As a general rule, the smaller and cheaper the aircraft you are chartering, the more likely it will be subject to delays due to weather.
Charter flights appeal to various groups:
- A single-entity charter is a private charter where one individual or company charters a plane and bears the entire cost of the flight. Most often, these will be booked by corporations looking to transport a group of their own workers or directors for business purposes.
- An affinity charter is a private charter where all passengers are affiliated with a specific business, group or organization, but each pays their own air fare. These flights may appeal to seniors' organisations or groups of sport or music fans looking to travel to a specific event. As with other private charters, none of the seats can be sold to members of public.
- In a public charter, a tour operator rents an aircraft and sells seats to the public, directly or through travel agencies. These often operate seasonally (often to resorts), in competition with other discount airlines, or as part of package tours. Often these are no-frills transport to keep costs low; they are strictly regulated (in the USA, by the federal Department of Transportation) and subject to many of the same requirements as regular scheduled airline flights - including airport security measures on boarding the flight and legal responsibilities for the protection of the clients' money if the charter operator goes broke.
As with other general aviation flights, departures are often from secondary "reliever airports" or "executive airports" as the main airport for a large city is often filled to capacity with scheduled airline flights. The firms which supply the pilots and aircraft vary in size from small general aviation firms with one or two small planes to the same major lines which provide the mainline scheduled commercial airline service. Prices vary widely and travel arrangements may need to be made well in advance.
Occasionally, a group can get a better price if they are fortunate enough to spot an available empty leg charter flight where someone else has chartered an aircraft one-way from another city well in advance; space on the (otherwise unused) return, deadhead or repositioning flight (which returns the plane to its home base) may be had at a discount as the aircraft would otherwise fly empty. Finding empty legs usually takes a bit of planning and leaves less flexibility in choice of departure times, but a web search for "empty leg charter" will usually find multiple operators which list available city pairs and departure times online.
National aviation regulators enforce high standards for maintenance for charter flights. Pilot qualifications can vary dramatically between countries and areas, and your charter pilot may be a freshly minted pilot looking for a career in flying, or a experienced pilot happy to fly the local area.
A few small communities in remote locations (such as Alaska or the Canadian High Arctic) rely on small aircraft to bring supplies or postal service. Often these are scheduled runs to expensive-to-reach points far from the beaten path, in small aircraft like those used for charter service or general aviation. Some may even be float planes which land at sea or in lakes. The name stems from the "bush" meaning the sparsely populated areas in places like Africa. There are still some communities outside the Arctic best or only reached by air, mostly in Australia and developing countries. Some towns in the tropics can be cut-off during the wet season and only be accessible by air.
If you hold a private pilots licence, then travelling at the controls of a small plane as a private pilot can be one of the most fulfilling travel experiences possible. You get to see the world from a perspective entirely different from the ground or from commercial aviation. Most parts of the world have some form of general aviation; in Western countries such as the United States and Europe small airports are everywhere. Costs are somewhat higher than commercial airline seats; travel time is less than by car but usually somewhat more than by airline. On the other hand, when the costs of operating a light plane are shared between the pilot and passengers, it can be a surprisingly economical way of getting around. Becoming a pilot can take a significant amount of time and money, but most will agree the rewards are outstanding; for most travel pilots the journey is the reward.
Over 80% of the world's registered private aircraft are in the U.S. Its network of airports, air traffic control, and freedom to fly (unrestricted airspace) mean that around 1% of the population are qualified pilots. There are active networks of pilots and aero-clubs in Canada, Australia and South Africa where private light aircraft are still established method of travel for many to access destinations and routes no services by the airlines.
There are operators that organize air-safaris for pilots and passengers, where they join a group of light aircraft on a journey between airports. Most of these are arranged for VFR day flights. They offer support services, including advice on navigation and weather - for such trips - and aircraft hire. They can also advise on getting how to get the right authorities and local approvals required.
Renting an aircraft away from your home country
Generally speaking, a local licence will allow you to fly a local plane to a neighbouring country after only obtaining the correct flight approvals (which may be as simple as lodging a flight plan, and landing at a customs approved airfield). However, if you want to rent an locally registered aircraft away from your home country, you will need to obtain a local pilots licence. This will usually involve an exchange between your local licensing authority and the foreign one - that may take many months to organise.
As with any aircraft hire, you'll probably need to do a checkride with the organisation hiring the aircraft. Sometimes they may have a local restriction on hiring, such as 200 PIC - so it's best to talk with them before you make too many plans.
An issue with VFR flying is always the risk of diversion due to weather - where you may end up somewhere else or not flying at all. When you book accommodation in advance and call to say you may not be there because your private plane may not make it through, you can often receive little sympathy when asking for a break or a refund. In a small town, you can contact the local aero-club who may offer accommodation or can direct you to somewhere a little aviation friendly. If you call the accommodation directly you may find they understand if you let them know as soon as you can't make it - or if it's a busy time of year and they can't hold it for you, you can have an upfront conversation.
Sharing costs on a private plane
If you don't have a pilots licence, there are ways you can join local private pilots on flights. Local flying clubs can often have flyaways where they are looking for passengers to make up the numbers on a cost-share basis, and you may have some luck checking with clubs at smaller local airfields. Private pilot licences often allow carrying a few passengers on a cost-share basis. This won't be cheap, but if you're going their way it is cheaper than a charter.
There were websites for this just like for ridesharing in cars, but most have closed as national aviation regulators enforce strict rules requiring pilots hold commercial pilot licences to carry paying passengers.