As the airport security began unrolling every sock in his 16-year-old son's luggage, Sam Davis began to wonder whether flying commercial carriers was worth the aggravation. More than an hour later, when father and son emerged from security after being searched, questioned and probed, Davis had his answer.

"I was willing to pay almost any price to avoid doing that ever again," said Davis, the retired CEO of Liqui-Box, an Ohio packaging company. "I have a 16-year-old, a 14-year-old and a 2-year-old, and going through security is an utter disaster every time. It's like a circus act."

The next time, Davis bypassed the major airlines and booked a charter flight for his family, just like he did as a corporate executive. Instead of driving an hour to fly from the large airport in Tampa, Fla., Davis called a local charter operator and booked a flight from a small airstrip near his home. Then he drove over and walked directly on the plane -- no waiting, no baggage check, no security hassles.

"I've been doing charters for about a year," Davis said. "This year we're going to use it to see some Ohio State football games. And I may fly my family down from Ohio, which is great, because they live in three different places and I can pick them all up."

The Rise of the Leisure Charter

Davis is not alone. More leisure travelers take charter flights, and more charter operations are springing up. Today, more than one-quarter of charter traffic comes from leisure travel. Indeed, light jet traffic, the bread and butter of the leisure charter world, was up more than 50% during the first quarter of 2002, according to the Air Charter Guide, which tracks the industry.

"I think it's safe to say that people have become very disenchanted with regular service airlines and are looking for ways to avoid it at all costs," said Christopher Elliott, editor of Elliott.org, a consumer travel Web site.

With the average charter cost for a small jet running into the thousands of dollars per hour, there's nothing cheap about flying charter

see chart. But for people who are accustomed to flying first class, it can be an extremely competitive option.

For starters, you'll free yourself from the tyranny of the hub-and-spoke model and be able to fly in and out of tiny airports, because charter flights aren't subject to the same restrictions and rules as their commercial counterparts. "There are more than 5,000 airports, and only about 500 are in use by the scheduled air carriers," said Cassandra Bosco, spokeswoman with the National Business Aviation Association. "But 70% of all travelers go through the top 30 hubs."

Because charters operate under different rules and fly from smaller airports, security is less cumbersome, although the FAA has been making strides to beef it up. But even when you're put through a metal detector or searched, there won't be any lines to wait in because you've arranged your own travel.

Furthermore, flying charter has gotten cheaper. The average price of flying charter was 8.7% lower in July than it was the previous year, according to CharterAuction.com, an online exchange for charter flights. "The drops in pricing are even more remarkable when one considers the demand for charter services has risen more than 20% over the past year," said Nate McKelvey, president and founder of CharterAuction.com.

In some cases, especially when flying from small, underserved markets, rates are competitive compared with first-class travel on a commercial airline. Also, charters always fly direct, while the only other options require plane changes. Plus, you'll avoid having to drive for hours to get to an airport.

How It Works and When It Makes Sense

Let's say you and six friends wanted to fly from Mattoon, Ill., a rural town in southern Illinois, to New York City, to see the annual Halloween parade in Greenwich Village.

Using scheduled flights, you'll have to fly from St. Louis, which is two hours away. The cheapest first-class round-trip flight, available from American Airlines, costs $1,128 and takes nearly seven hours to get to its final destination in Newark, including a plane change in Detroit. The only direct first-class round-trip flight, also from American, costs $1,525, and each leg takes nearly three hours.

This leaves two options. Pay $1,128 and waste nearly 28 hours traveling, after factoring in the airport drives, security checks and return trip. Or pay $1,525 and waste half as much time.

See chart.

In comparison, chartering a small jet is a real time-saver. By scheduling your own flight, you can leave from Coles County Airport, just five minutes from Mattoon, and fly into Teterboro Airport in Teterboro, N.J., which, like Newark, is just 10 miles from New York City. Not only are both airports close, the flight is just two hours each way.

But this convenience comes at a premium price. It will cost between $1,450 and $1,950 to make the trip, according to CharterAuction.com. While that price point isn't a bargain, it is competitive enough to make the impatient traveler flying with a brood on short notice take another look.

It Saves Time, Not Money

With such a high price tag, charters really aren't for everyone, especially with prices for cheap seats at levels unseen since 1988. "There's really no comparison between the kinds of prices people pay for charter and what's out there for discount leisure fares," said Edward Hasbrouck, author of

The Practical Nomad

. "This is really just for avoiding security delays at airports."

But there is some incentive. Longer delays may remain with us because carriers have cut back on services, routes and employees to manage costs during the biggest downturn in industry history. And with the recent federalization of airport security, a lot of freshly uniformed folks will be learning on the job.

More than ever, if you have the money, you can afford to save some time.

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