Posted on Fri, Jun. 10, 2005

Sky drivers: Commuters take wing to beat traffic

Mercury News

It's commute hour on a Monday evening, and Bill Byrne is zipping past hundreds of cars crossing the Dumbarton Bridge and crawling up Interstate 880. Not by squeezing his car onto the shoulder, mind you, or by weaving in and out of traffic on a motorcycle.

No, Byrne is above all that. The 37-year-old applications developer is cruising 3,500 feet above the fray in a rented propeller plane. He slips into the pilot's seat for his commute almost every day, which shrinks the three-hour journey home from his Mountain View office to a 75-minute trip, door to door.

``I feel the best when it's Friday and I'm doing that,'' the Davis resident said.

Byrne is among a handful of Bay Area commuters who trade the highway for the skyway. These hobbyist pilots fly to their high-tech jobs in Silicon Valley from Oakland, Martinez and even Ashland, Ore. It's a way to escape the valley's stratospheric housing prices, avoid some of the worst commute traffic in the nation and reclaim a few hours of enjoyment.

It's hard to tell just how many people are setting aside SUVs for Cessnas. The U.S. Census Bureau doesn't include flying small personal planes to work among its 10 major forms of commutes -- it falls into the ``other'' category, which comes to just 901,298 workers, or 0.7 percent of the workforce.

More than a dozen sky bounders regularly rush toward Palo Alto Airport's single runway after work. Half a dozen more park their planes at San Jose's Reid Hillview Airport while spending the day at companies like Apple Computer and Cisco Systems.

U.J. Emetarom, president of the Diamond Aviation flight school, knows of at least five aerial commuters at San Carlos Airport. ``The real estate market here has a lot to do with it. For the price of a house here, you can get a house twice as big somewhere else -- and an airplane.''

Commuting costs

Still, soaring through the sky isn't exactly cheap. A used two-seater, single-engine airplane typically costs about $20,000 and racks up $2,000 to $8,000 in annual operating expenses -- including fuel, insurance, maintenance, parking, mandatory flight instruction reviews and a multitude of other items, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Many commuting pilots already owned planes but had few opportunities to fly because they were spending so much time at the office -- and driving to and from it. That's one reason Oakland resident David Millett started commuting by plane to his Mountain View job in April.

``It gives me a good excuse to fly my plane,'' said Millett, 49. He hasn't calculated how much more it costs to fly than drive to work because he knows ``it's going to be quite astronomical . . . but it's fun and it beats the commute.''

Others, like 51-year-old Jonathan Law of Davis, have found ways to make the planes pay for themselves. While Law is working at a Menlo Park online brokerage, members of the Shoreline Flying Club rent his plane for $80 to $90 an hour -- enough to cover his plane's parking, fuel and maintenance costs.

Backup plans

Bad weather can wreak havoc on pilots' commuting plans. If David Vinas, a 35-year-old Cisco software consultant who lives in Ashland, Ore., can't fly himself to San Jose, he'll drive six hours to get to the office. Vinas prefers to be his own pilot rather than a commercial plane passenger because of the convenience, he said.

``I'm self-sufficient,'' he said. ``And whenever I want, I can jump in a plane. I can just go,'' he said.

Some private plane commuters keep a low profile. Hardly any of Byrne's co-workers know he has been coasting to work in a cockpit for the past two years.

``Sometimes I avoid talking about it because most people think it's a bigger deal than it is,'' said Byrne, who joined Google a few months ago and works three or four days a week in Silicon Valley. ``They think I'm a millionaire, and I'm not.''

Housing costs a factor

It's precisely because he's not that Byrne bought a house elsewhere.

The Byrnes lived in the Bay Area for six years, bumping around between one-bedroom apartments in Oakland and Santa Clara before buying their first home in Sunnyvale. Their quaint, 1950s-fashioned bungalow -- an imitation Eichler that Byrne unaffectionately calls ``our 850-square-foot palace'' -- was surrounded by a chain-link fence and sandwiched between office parks.

After a few years, they got to thinking: Wouldn't it be nicer for the two girls to spend more time with their grandmother in Chico? To have plenty of neighborhood kids to play with? To scatter their toys throughout a home twice as large?

In 2003, they swapped their so-so Silicon Valley situation for the dream in Davis, which a real estate agent pitched to them as ``the Palo Alto of the Sacramento area.'' The public school 300 yards from their new home ranks right up there with several Palo Alto and Cupertino elementary schools on state test scores. And Davis and Palo Alto both boast general aviation airports.

Byrne doesn't own an airplane. It's way out of his price range.

So instead, Byrne rents an insured Cessna 172 Skyhawk from the Cal Aggie Flying Farmers, a Davis members-only flight club that provides the plane with fuel included for about $100 each day that he wings it to work. Last year, when Byrne was in a plane-pool with a friend who also commuted to a Silicon Valley job, it was cheaper to fly than drive because they split the costs.

Byrne's commute home begins in a beat-up 1989 Volvo station wagon that he bought for $900 and leaves at Palo Alto's bay-land airport.

In his 40 minutes of flying time, Byrne soaks up top-of-the-world views of Mount Diablo, the Bay Bridge and the Sierra Nevada.

``It's calming,'' he said. ``People love to look out the airplane window, and I get to do it every day.''

And he gets to arrive home in time for important events, like his daughter Clare's first-grade poetry reading that night. It was scheduled to start at 7 p.m., and he wanted to snag a good seat for her recitation of Shel Silverstein's ``Listen to the Mustn'ts.''

Had he tried to drive home, he would have had to cut out of work at least an hour earlier. And even then he might have missed the show.

``Leaving at 4 p.m., it probably would take me three hours. It's prime time,'' he said. ``I don't think I could have done it.''

Contact Nicole C. Wong at or (408) 920-5730.

2005 and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.