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Americans Relying on Private Planes

July 20, 1999

FAIRFIELD, N.J. (AP) _ Every chance he gets, Jim Sullivan hops into his four-seat Piper Cherokee and takes off on quick trips, flying anywhere he can get in an hour or so.

``Fly down to Washington to go to the aerospace museum. Fly to Hyannis to have lunch,″ said Sullivan, 62, of Paramus.

Scores of others take their planes weekly from the Essex County Airport to the Vineyard, Nantucket, the Hamptons. They avoid the crowds, come and go when they want and go fast.

``Any place you’d go in a car,″ said Chris Porta, 18, who’s working toward a pilot’s license. ``It just saves time.″

John F. Kennedy Jr., whose Piper Saratoga went down in the Atlantic last Friday while flying from this northern New Jersey town to Massachusetts, was one of a growing number of well-off Americans who are relying on private planes to get them around as quickly and hassle-free as possible.

Experts credit a strong economy, relaxed product liability laws and Americans’ need to get places faster and on their own terms for a resurgence in the private plane industry.

``It’s the freedom,″ said Shelly Snyder Simi, a spokeswoman for the General Aviation Manufacturers’ Association in Washington. ``Everybody’s time is valuable.″

Sales in the general aviation industry, which makes personal and corporate jets, reached a 15-year high in the first quarter of 1999. Ms. Simi said the industry sold 2,220 private aircraft last year, more than double the 928 planes in 1994.

It’s been five years since Congress passed a law which kept people from suing manufacturers for alleged defects in planes more than 18 years old. The change brought the struggling makers of Cessnas and Pipers back into the industry and increased plane production, experts said.

The majority of new plane owners are likely to be middle-aged, white men with enough freedom and wherewithal to make their own schedules, Simi said.

Kennedy, 38, obtained his pilot’s license last year and took trips nearly every weekend, frequently with his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. On Friday, he left work to meet his wife and her sister, Lauren Bessette, before flying to Massachusetts. He was to drop off Lauren Bessette in Martha’s Vineyard and then head to Hyannis Port for cousin Rory’s wedding on Saturday.

The plane crashed in the sea miles before it reached the Vineyard. Kennedy, his wife and sister-in-law are presumed dead.

Pilots have criticized Kennedy, a relatively inexperienced pilot, for taking off on a night flight into hazy weather. But others said pilots occasionally push their luck when they’re on a tight schedule.

``If you really want to go someplace and you feel highly motivated, you’re going to try to do it. It’s only human nature,″ said Peter Cruz, who owns a Beechcraft Bonanza at the Fairfield airport.

``They call it gotta-go-itis,″ said Sullivan. ``It affects your judgment.″

At the Essex County Airport, where 350 pilots store their aircraft and 251,000 planes take off and land a year, pilots invest tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to be able to fly for fun, for business and for convenience.

Cruz, a retired chemical salesman from North Caldwell, used to take his plane to make two or three out-of-state appointments a day. He and his wife have flown the plane to South Carolina and Florida on vacation.

``It’s the convenience of it, to be able to come and go as you need to,″ he said.

But convenience doesn’t come cheap. A low-level single-engine plane costs way more than most luxury cars _ from $125,000 to $400,000, says Simi. Renting a plane can cost from $50 to $85 an hour. Cruz pays $400 a month to store his plane in a hangar.

And getting a pilot’s license costs about $4,500, flight instructor Ed Gacio said. Learning to fly with instrument-only capability costs another $3,200.

Gacio, an instructor at the Caldwell Flight Academy at the Fairfield airport, said not only the rich learn to fly. He teaches ``everything from the common laborer to engineers with Ph.D.’s.″

Sullivan, a U.S. Customs inspector who learned to fly in the Air Force, has his own solution for his pricey hobby.

``I reached that point in my life where I don’t have any other vices,″ said Sullivan, wearing a belt with a gold buckle that reads ``I’d rather be flying.″

``Any discretionary funds go into the plane,″ he said.

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