Hypothesis - Comparing driving, general aviation, and commercial service

Let’s look at a few travels to compare the time it takes to drive versus the time it takes to fly in a light aircraft. For the purpose of further discussion of the topic let’s assume we need to travel from the city center of Mannheim, a regional center, to other places near and far.

Driving vs. general aviation

Case 1: Travel between Mannheim and Nürnberg

By car the distance between the city centers of Mannheim and Nürnberg is 242km and according to Google’s route planner it would take approximately 2 hours and 18 minutes to drive.

The direct distance between the airports EDFM (Mannheim) and EDDN (Nürnberg) is 99.5 NM (184 km). Going at an airspeed of 175kt (324 km/h) the flight would take about 35 minutes. That simple calculation doesn’t take wind into account but the time it takes by car is also without other outside influence such as traffic jams.

Flying takes us from airport to airport but not yet to the city center, which may be our actual destination. So we need to take a taxi from the airport. In Mannheim the airport is very close to the city center. By car it takes 11 minutes. In Nürnberg the distance is slightly larger. It takes about 17 minutes to be taken to the city center.

By now the 35 minutes flying time has increased to 63 minutes travel time. As piloting yourself does not allow you to take off, land and leave the aircraft without time for preparing the aircraft and parking it safely, some additional time has to be considered for those tasks. Let’s add 15 minutes at origin and destination for that. So our total travel time might come to 93 minutes = 1.5 hrs.

Flying would save us about 45 minutes on a one-way trip and 1.5 hours going back and forth.

If we drive and plan to be in Nürnberg by 09:00 we would have to leave Mannheim no later than 06:45. On the way back we might want to leave by 17:00 and would be back by 19:20. Flying we save 45 minutes on this trip, which allows us to leave a bit later by 7:30 and we will be back sooner by 18:35.

Case 2: Travel between Mannheim and Hamburg

The distance to drive between Mannheim and Hamburg is 571km and it would take 5 hours and 17 minutes. That long drive will require us to travel the day before any activity we want to perform in Hamburg. So it becomes by default a two day trip. In reality it will easily become a three day trip, unless we want to take on that long drive after a long day in Hamburg. If we leave by 17:00 we would arrive in Mannheim as late as 22:20 - in fact, much later, as we have to eat dinner at some time too.

A light aircraft would take us from EDFM (Mannheim) to EDDH (Hamburg) in 1.5 hours. Let’s add again 15 minutes at origin and destination for preparation and leaving the aircraft parked safely. That makes it 2 hours total travel time from airport to airport. As before, we need 11 minutes in Mannheim to get to the airport from the city center. In Hamburg the taxi from the airport to the city center takes 21 minutes. Makes a total travel time of 2.5 hours.

Flying from Mannheim to Hamburg doesn’t just save us a bit of time. It reduces our travel time to less than half of the time it would take by car. We could do this within the same day, if we are willing to leave Mannheim at 6:30. We would be back at 19:30, if we leave Hamburg city center by 17:00. With the small pain of rising early this now has shrunk to a day-trip instead of either a two days trip with some bigger pain or even spending two days for travel alone.

Case 3: Travel from Mannheim to London, UK

Now let’s try something international. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to assume that such a trip would involve flying but there is also the option to drive and cross the English Channel under the sea by driving through a tunnel. First a view onto the map:

Driving would take about 8 hours. Our light aircraft going at 175kt would take us to the London City Airport in about 2 hours. It takes 25 minutes to get to the city center by taxi plus the 11 minutes in Mannheim that makes a total travel time of about 2hrs 45 minutes. Let’s not forget the prep time at the beginning and end of our journey of 30 minutes. We end up with 3 hours and 15 minutes.

Driving 8 hours does require some rest and additional time to eat. So driving isn’t really an option, as it would become a two day trip anyway. Let’s forget that.

Before I look into alternatives like using commercial air service allow me to have a second look at the 3 hours 15 minutes travel time using a light aircraft. That doesn’t look too bad. But to be at the destination by 09:00 we would leave by 05:45 and that isn’t easy on the body. If we leave London city center by 17:00, we can we back by 20:15. However, we would not start our trip at 05:45. There is additional time required to get up, do our morning routine, have breakfast, etc. So this feels like an unhealthy thing to do in just one day and piloting ourselves with not enough sleep will be entirely dangerous. In that case we probably would do it as a two day trip going to London the evening before.

Update: London City airport is not available to single engine aircraft and in general requires prior permission to land there. The alternative seems to be Biggin Hill (EGKB) south of London. From there one can get to the city center with a combination of taxi and train. A pilot report mentions it may take up to 45 minutes to get to downtown. So our total trip time increases by 20 minutes to 3 hours 35 minutes.

What about using a commercial airline?

Between major cities using a commerical airline is always an option. However, between regional centers such as Mannheim that option does not exist right away. We would have to drive from Mannheim to the nearest airport with commercial service. That would be Frankfurt.

Lufthansa does have a few flights from Frankfurt (FRA) to Nürnberg (NUE). They take between 45 and 50 minutes. And there seem to be a pair in the flightplan that would allow us to do some work at the destination. We would leave Frankfurt at 08:00 and then have to leave Nürnberg at 17:50 in the afternoon to be back at Frankfurt airport at 18:40.

However, commercial airlines require their passengers to be at the airport early enough for all the “processing” to take place. Even if the airline allows their frequent flyer customers (I’ve been that for eight years while working in the US) to check in just 30 minutes before the flight leaves, there is an unknown amount of time that will be needed for all the security checks between the check-in counter and the gate for the flight. You may be able to get on within just 45 minutes but it might be smarter to plan 1.5 hours - or risk missing your flight and anger everybody at the destination. Further there additional time required to get off the aircraft and walk through the terminal to reach a taxi or our own car.

Case 1: Mannheim to Nürnberg

So with our first case we would have to be at Frankfurt airport at 6:30 in the morning for an 8:00 flight and be at the Nürnberg airport slightly before 16:00. Let’s not forget the time it takes to get to and from the airports. At our destination that means we would have to leave for the airport at about 15:30 (17 minutes drive). In the case of our origin Frankfurt it gets worse, because we have to drive up from Mannheim to Frankfurt first. Takes at least 48 Minutes and we may encounter a traffic jam too.

Let’s sum that up. We would have to leave Mannheim by about 05:45 to catch an 08:00 flight to Nürnberg arriving at the final destination no sooner than 09:10. We need to leave for the airport at about 15:30 and would be back in Mannheim at about 19:25. Our time in transit would be about 3.5hrs. That’s clearly more than the time it takes to drive. So that doesn’t make any sense at all.

Case 2: Mannheim to Hamburg

A commercial service from Frankfurt to Hamburg takes 1h 15m. Lufthansa leaves Frankfurt at 07:00 and on the way back there is a flight leaving at 18:00. We would have to leave by 04:45 and would be back by 21:30. That again would make this trip very hard on our bones and will require us to arrive in Hamburg the day before any activity we want to perform there.

Case 3: Mannheim to London, UK

Frankfurt - London on a commercial service takes 1h 55m. We could leave Frankfurt at 07:20 and catch the return flight at 18:50. That makes us leave Mannheim at 05:05 and we would be back by 21:05. It would be a very long day again.

Comparison of all cases

Without considering other factors and by just looking at the travel times, when to leave and when to return my preliminary conclusion is as follows. I have marked the option that seems to make most sense to me.

Destination Driving General Aviation Commercial Service
Nürnberg doable, same day doable, same day makes no sense
Hamburg hard, two days doable, same day hard or two days
London hard, several days doable, two days hard or two days

On the very short distance to Nürnberg there will be some time savings but not as huge as on the trip to Hamburg.

Interestingly in all three cases using a general aviation light aircraft seems to make perfect sense. The commercial service would win on the trip to London but at the cost of a very long day - much longer than when piloting ourselves to Hamburg.