CHICAGO — Behind the tragic crash of golfer Payne Stewart's Learjet lies a story of how private-plane travel is revolutionizing the professional and personal lives of American atheletes - as well as everyone from Hollywood actors to business executives.
The as-yet-unexplained crash Oct. 25 will undoubtedly raise critical safety issues. But it also highlights how common private-jet travel is becoming to an elite slice of society - particularly in an era of rising wealth and compressed schedules.
In the old days, pro golfers in particular would slog through long nights and endless miles in their cars, only to arrive, frazzled, at early-morning tee times. But no more. In this era of instant messaging and satellite phones, quick travel has become essential.
Furthermore, in today's celebrity culture, personal appearances carry big weight. A golf star may sign books in New York on Monday, check out his latest course design in Texas on Tuesday, and play Pebble Beach on Wednesday. For golfers - and stars in many professions - having a Gulfstream or Learjet ready on the tarmac has become critical to advancing careers.
Then there's the practical side. Especially in the Zen-like realm of golf, it's not worth losing tempers, or luggage, by flying commercial. Those who do "can't expect to get there with their wits about them - or their clubs," says Michael Slack, an Austin, Texas, lawyer who represents celebrities in aviation disputes.
The crash that killed Mr. Stewart and as many as five others Oct. 25 came after their Learjet 35 charter plane apparently lost cabin pressure shortly after takeoff in Florida, incapacitating the crew and passengers. In a tragic and harrowing odyssey, it flew some 1,400 miles on autopilot, shadowed by Air Force jets, before crashing in a field near Mina, S.D.
Despite the growing use of private planes, the industry maintains a good safety record. General-aviation traffic - which includes everything from single-engine prop planes to big corporate jets - is up 20 percent since 1993. Yet the number of fatal accidents dropped from 460 in 1988 to 361 in 1998.
As for the Learjet 35, "It's probably the most-reliable Lear they built," says Robert Breiling of Breiling Associates, which tracks corporate-aircraft safety in Boca Raton, Fla.
For corporate jets, which Stewart was flying in, safety margins are significantly higher than for all general aviation. There were just four fatal accidents in 1998 and one in 1997. Corporate planes are nearing the safety record of commercial airliners.
Still, the smaller cabins of private planes are considered more susceptible to pressure loss than are commercial jets.
Despite the risks, more top athletes seem willing to take them in their quest for greater convenience and mobility. Arnold Palmer, for instance, can jump in his $15 million Citation X - billed as the fastest nonmilitary jet in the world - and hop coast to coast in four hours. It travels at 600 m.p.h.
Greg Norman cruises the world in his Gulfstream V, which costs about $35 million, seats 12, and has a bedroom. He calls it his "home away from home."
But it's not only the titans of golf who have their own planes. In fact, the rise of a concept called "fractional time" has propelled many into the seats of their first private plane. It is basically a time-share for aircraft, allowing customers to buy access to a plane when they need it.
Stewart, for instance, was a customer of Flexjet, one of several companies that sells time-share planes. On four hours' notice, they can have a plane ready to go anywhere. A quarter-share in an eight-passenger Learjet 31A costs $1.5 million, which opens private-plane travel to a less-elite class of fliers.
Of the top 30 pro golfers, only a handful now don't have their own planes.
All this was "inconceivable 10 years ago," says Rocky Hambric of Cornerstone Sports, an agency in Dallas whose clients include golfers Phil Mickelson and Larry Nelson.
Time with family is another reason golfers are buying jets. Mr. Hambric has a client who flew home to Denver on Sunday evening after a tournament. After spending the night with his family, he flew to Arkansas on Monday. He was home Monday night and off to another tournament on Tuesday.
Nor is the trend limited to golfers. Cowboys on the rodeo circuit have begun flying more often - although their aircraft are typically prop planes.
And, of course, Hollywood has always had its share of high-fliers. Arnold Schwarzenegger is famous for buzzing movie sets in his plane. John Travolta's neighbors in a quiet hamlet in Maine swear it was one of his jets that buzzed their town last summer. The FAA is investigating.
If and when aviation experts determine the cause of the Stewart crash, it will likely lead to a closer look at private jet safety.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society