Fighting Words: "Used Plane"
Why we need to look at and talk about airplanes differently.
By Robert Goyer / Published: Sep 10, 2013
One of the lessons we in aviation have learned during these past six years of economic doldrums is that we need to start thinking of airplanes as being more like houses. Houses you can fly around in, that is.
New airplanes, like new homes, have a lot going for them. In addition to that new airplane smell, you get the latest avionics and other safety advances, like big flat-panel displays, a digital autopilot, airbag seat belts and perhaps a lot more.
You also have the luxury of owning an airplane full of components with a short and known history. You also get the knowledge that if something goes wrong early on, you are, at least in theory, covered under warranty.
The downside of a new airplane is clear to everybody. They cost a lot, the term "a lot" being relative. I remember years ago wondering aloud who would pay $20 million dollars for a recently announced super-midsize bizjet. The answer, of course, was "someone who has $20 million to spend on a new super-midsize bizjet." Fair enough. And I don't think I need to say that I was clearly not one of those people with $20 million lying around gathering dust.
When it comes to jets, new makes a lot of sense, because ongoing maintenance of existing jets is so dear. Still, with jets as with piston singles and twins (and nice cars, for that matter too), the sweet spot is the lightly used model, one that is in "just off lease" condition, with enough hours of use to bring the cost way down while still having just a faint whiff of that new plane feel.
As good a deal as these near-new models are, relative to showroom new examples, they're still pricey compared to older models.
For many of us, that's a great thing, because with a well-loved model, you get a lot of utility for pennies on the dollar. A 1970s vintage 182, as you probably know, is very comparable in performance to a 2013 model.
The downsides of buying older airplanes are many. You don't get all the bells or whistles — in fact, you might be lucky to get any. Then there's the uncertainty — is there really no damage history, or just none the current owner knows about? You also stand the very real possibility that the "mid-time" engine on your new-used plane was maxed out at 800 hours, a crushing discovery that can turn a $70,000 bargain into a $90,000 investment overnight. You also get to live with the quality of life downsides of an older airplane, possibly including fading interiors, finicky radios, air conditioners that don't condition the air, and yellowed and scratched windscreens and windows, to name just a few concessions that used airplane buyers make.
But just as is the case with houses, you don't have to make all the improvements overnight. You can add paint when you can, seat covers, a portable device or two, maybe even a couple of Aspen or Garmin displays in the panel, or a JPI engine analyzer for good measure. The latter changes are likely to give you a good semblance of the new-airplane experience without breaking the bank.
After all is said and done, general airframes, like foundations, are built to last a long, long time with regular maintenance and the occasional bigger repair. The bones of an airplane are your starting point, and the economics of upgrading can be tailored to fit your budget and your needs.
Starting today, I'm no longer going to call them "used" airplanes. From now on, they're what they've always been, simply "airplanes."
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