Driving vs. flying is a basic travel decision. Delays and extra fees cause passengers (especially families) to seek alternatives such as driving.
Airlines need to keep in mind that passengers often have choices. These choices may include other competing airlines, taking trains or buses, and driving. One of the most significant changes has been the competition of driving vs. flying. Many consumers choose to drive when given a choice to take a trip where a drive is compared to a plane to travel for up to eight hours.
So far this winter, between meltdowns during mega snowstorms and the FAA computer problems, the decision between driving vs. flying is more important in the decision-making process.
Why?, many people ask. Besides IT glitches it is a combination of economics, discomfort (lack of personal space), lack of customer service, distrust of airline schedules, keeping a family together while traveling, and security line hassles. Simply put, a flight is no longer seen as an enjoyable experience, but something to be endured.
Some travelers put their personal cut-off for flying to driving at around an 8-hour trip by car. When children are involved, the length of the trip can increase to around 12 hours or so. For some families traveling together, there is no cut-off other than the time it takes to drive. I have known families to leave at very early hours with the children sound asleep and then parents take turns driving.
An eight-hour trip by car doesn’t require an overnight stay and when kids are involved, it makes a giant difference. Plus, many travelers claim that they are faced with stress when flying. Stress about being there on time. Stress with kids. Stress with security checkpoints. Stress with family seating on planes.
What costs more? Flying or driving?
Whenever the decision is simply one of economics, often driving is far less expensive than flying. Even when hotel overnights and gas are included, flying for a family of four is more expensive than driving for many. There are even websites that help with the comparison calculations. There is a Be Frugal Fly or Drive Calculator and the TravelMath calculator. Both provide a good overview of comparing flying and driving, but TravelMath scores don’t factor in the cost of luggage when flying or rental car price.
For families, driving is almost always less expensive for a 12-hour trip. Of course, there is time. However, an airline trip from DC to St. Louis with a connection will take about 6+ hours. With a family, that is a full day. Driving will take a day and 4 hours, according to a calculator. So on a week-long trip, you only lose a day of your vacation.
The costs of flying include airfare, baggage fees, car rental costs, home-to-airport-and-back costs (or parking costs), and airport terminal food. To drive, the trip costs are fuel, tolls, wear and tear on your car, and hotel expenses.
Here is the decision matrix in terms of time.
Though flying seems faster, often it is not. The biggest differentiator comes when the drive from the center of town to the airport and from the airport to the final destination.is calculated. Plus, there is a time difference for passengers who are checking bags.
Additional times besides delays must be built into schedules.
- Time to get to the airport (30 minutes)
- Check-in time at the airport and getting through security (1 to 2 hours)
- Waiting time to board (30 minutes)
- Flight time (1 hour)
- Deplane and pick up checked baggage (45 minutes)
- Drive time from the airport to the city center (30 minutes)
- Total time to fly is 6+ hours
This means that only in terms of time considerations, a train, an automobile trip, or a bus ride from Washington, DC, to New York City can take about the same time as flying.
When the competition between flying between major cities with major airports and commuting between cities with sporadic service and fewer flights, the time lost when flying becomes another factor.
Is flying or driving safer?
And, finally, the factor of safety comes into play, Here, flying is always “safer” than driving, according to the United States government. That’s why babies are allowed to fly on laps at no additional cost on airlines — otherwise, parents would drive to save money. The FAA determined that:
The risk for fatalities and injuries to families is significantly greater on the roads than in airplanes, according to the FAA. Last year, nearly 43,000 people died on America’s highways as compared to 13 on commercial flights.
“Statistics show that families are safer traveling in the sky than on the road,” said FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey. “We encourage the use of child safety seats in airplanes. However, if requiring extra airline tickets forces some families to drive, then we’re inadvertently putting too many families at risk.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) supported the FAA’s decision based on current FAA and NHTSA studies that show a mandate could result in another 13 to 42 added family member fatalities over 10 years in highway accidents.
Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that in 2015, there were 32,166 fatal motor vehicle accidents that led to just over 35,000 deaths. That comes out to be 1.13 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, and nearly 11 people for every 100,000 U.S. residents.
Contrast these numbers to U.S. airline accidents recorded by the National Transportation Safety Board: In 2015, preliminary statistics revealed a total of 27 total accidents — zero of which was fatal. Of the accidents that did occur, just 0.155 happened for every 100,000 flight hours. Airline accidents per one million miles flown came in at a rate of 0.0035.
Put it another way: Americans have a 1 in 114 chance of dying in a car crash, according to the National Safety Council. The odds of dying in air and space transport incidents, which include private flights and air taxis, are 1 in 9,821. That’s almost three times better chances than you meeting your fate by choking on food.
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Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 14 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation, and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.