Computing Commuting

November 11, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — It’s a Thursday morning and Tim Masek is working his way though traffic on I-94 on his way to Chicago. He might be making the trip again next Wednesday, and again the following Monday. The 41-year-old chairman of automotive supplier Fuel Systems LLC spends at least one day a week commuting between his home in East Grand Rapids and the Chicago office of a leveraged buyout firm in which he is a partner. He takes his car for a reason.

“When you take a commercial flight, you’ve got to arrive an hour early at the airport. Then you get to O’Hare and you’ve got an hour drive into the city, if you’re lucky,” Masek said in a phone interview from his Chicago office. “When I drive, I can make it in two and a half, two forty-five. And I get the flexibility of being able to come and go as I please with my own car.”

That’s not to say he hasn’t tried other options. He said that he drives 90 percent of the time. He takes commercial flights occasionally. He’s even taken a few charter flights. To avoid the slick roadways this winter, he’s planning on giving Amtrak a shot.

There are other options, but Masek is not interested. Embarking on a multi-leg journey involving the Lake Express ferry, or driving to Michigan City, Ind., to catch a commuter train into Chicago, or even taking a taxicab all the way would get him to his destination, but he sees those options as more trouble than they’re worth.

Masek’s situation isn’t unusual. With two of the Midwest’s largest metropolitan areas within a few hours’ drive, Grand Rapids businesspeople find themselves faced with a common question: What’s the best way to get there?

Detroit is about two hours away by car. Chicago is closer to three. Those times are chopped down to about 30 and 45 minutes, respectively, when travelers take to the skies, although security screening and ground transportation usually add a couple of hours to the trip. Taking a private charter flight lops off most of the pre-flight waiting.

According to Chuck Cox, president of Northern Jet Management, his charter customers are off the ground “as soon as we get them out of their car and get their bags onboard.” That means getting from Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids to a business meeting at the John Hancock Building in downtown Chicago should take no more than an hour.

Of course, with that convenience comes a price. A chartered flight to Chicago — which can accommodate up to eight passengers — costs more than $3,000. Commercial flights range from as low as $94 to nearly $2,000 (for short-notice purchases). Even with gasoline in the mid-$2 range, it’s still only about $40 to take the company Taurus or the family minivan to the Windy City and back. So with cost as the only determining factor, many choose to drive.

But Jeff Uhurek doesn’t think they should. He is a corporate travel sales executive with Witte Travel & Tours in Grand Rapids. And he thinks companies would send their travelers by plane more frequently if they considered that driving means paying employees to spend more time away from the office — and having to shell out the 48.5-cent-per-mile reimbursement rate set by the Internal Revenue Service.

“The average cost for a businessman to conduct a two-day, one-night trip to Chicago is $518.57,” Uhurek contends. “This includes mileage reimbursement of $174.60 … $35 overnight parking, $94.97 in food per diems, and $214 average one-night hotel stay. Not to mention spending six-plus hours in the car, being gone from his/her family for a night, plus being out of the office for two days. The same traveler could fly to Chicago and back the same day for approximately $565. This includes airfare, approximate taxi fares and a lunch per diem.”

Of course, that’s comparing a one-day flying trip and a two-day driving trip. It’s not necessarily correct to assume that the same amount of work would be accomplished in both cases.

In fact, the ability to get extra work done is one of the reasons why Masek chooses to drive. An airline passenger does have the advantage of being able to use a laptop computer, but the Federal Aviation Administration prohibits cell phone use on all commercial and charter flights.

A driver obviously can’t use a laptop. But he can use his cell phone. In fact, he can chat all the way to the Chicago city limits (and even beyond, if he has a hands-free headset or chooses to disregard the city ordinance that prohibits talking on a cell phone without a headset while driving).

“You can get a lot of work done during your drive,” said Masek. “You can make a lot of phone calls in two and a half hours.”    

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