July 2010 — Time have changed in aviation, with the advent of computerized avionics, satellite navigation and five-buck-a-gallon avgas, but two things that haven’t changed are that flying costs money and pilots will look for ways to cut those costs.
There’s more need to economize than ever before because getting behind the yoke of an airplane is more expensive than it used to be. When I started flying back in the ’70s (courtesy of my mom and dad, one great hedge against costs that didn’t make the list), you could buy a brand-new four-place 160 hp airplane for around $25,000, a 40-hour flying course for around $1,500 and a gallon of 100LL for just less than a buck. Those costs today are closer to $250,000 for the airplane, $7,000 for the certificate and $5 for the gallon of avgas. With the exception of the training, which costs about the same as or slightly less than its 1976 figure adjusted for inflation, the costs (for a new airplane and fuel for it) have outpaced inflation by a factor of two to three. And that’s pretty much the way it is across the board.
This means that a lot of pilots and potential pilots have been shut out of the activity because it’s too expensive for them. And that’s too bad, since a lot of those pilots could get into the air (or fly a lot more) simply by readjusting their expectations or assumptions about what flying is and what they need to spend to do it.
Let’s face it: If you see flying as the act of owning a new airplane, keeping it in a heated hangar and buying gas where you’re based regardless of the cost, then flying is going to be relatively expensive for you. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if you’ve got the money. But it can be done differently by examining what flying is to you and what you really need to enjoy the activity and get some usefulness out of it. Do you need an entire airplane? Can a used airplane fit the bill? How much do you need to fly? How much insurance do you really need? Do you use the airplane for business, or can you?
In this open-minded vein, here are 13 concrete ways you potentially can lower the costs of flying and thereby fly more than you do now.
1. Shop for Insurance
If you’re a good risk with a good flying record, you might be able to save a few hundred dollars a year or more on your insurance by looking around for a better deal. If you’re not such a good risk, you’ll still wind up paying a lot for insurance, but you can save even more. Sometimes the potential for savings is hidden by our comfortable situation. A friend in an airplane partnership was forced to shop for new coverage when his insurer refused to cover one of the partners, a pilot with a perfect record whose only known sin was turning 70. After a few phone calls, he succeeded in getting coverage. Not only did his “problem” partner get covered, but the entire partnership also saved hundreds of dollars a year for the same coverage it had had before. You also want to be sure not to overinsure. An acquaintance of mine once boasted about his high-limits liability policy, which I’m sure his agent was more than happy to sell him but which outstripped his net worth by a couple of million dollars. After consulting with his new agent, he downsized his policy and saved a ton of cash. The bottom line: Shop around to find the best deal, and when you do, get an appropriate level of coverage.
2. Share an Airplane
Partnerships are fraught with peril, but they can save you a ton of dough. I understand the attraction of owning an airplane, but for many pilots it’s just not in the cards. When I moved to Texas from Connecticut five years ago, I was able to buy into a six-person partnership in an early ’70s Cherokee Six with a nice panel and a fairly new engine for $10,000. The costs were manageable. I paid one-sixth the annual inspection costs, one-sixth the engine and prop reserve and one-sixth the cost for subscriptions, oil changes, insurance and hangar rent. I got to fly as much as I needed, around 75 hours a year, and while there were a few scheduling conflicts during the three years I was in the partnership, they were not huge inconveniences. I got the pleasure of owning my own airplane, one that I truly felt was “mine” despite sharing it with multiple partners. My experience was, on balance, a good one, though there are numerous potential pitfalls with partnerships. But if you have good partners (including, most importantly, one who’s good with keeping track of the money and the maintenance), it can be a great experience and one that will save you more than any other money-saving strategy.
I left the partnership (and quickly sold my share) when I joined PlaneSmart, a shared-ownership company that sells and leases shares in Cirrus SR22s and other airplanes (including Pilatus PC-12s). While shared ownership isn’t cheap — nor is it available in a lot of places — if it is an option, it can get you into a new airplane for pennies on the dollar. Plus, your airplane gets taken care of for you as part of the deal.
3. Their Loss, Your Gain
When you’re looking to buy a used airplane, remember that the value of an airplane is the sum of its parts, so take a close look at the avionics, paint, interior and engine condition before making that buying decision. The trick is to learn to look at an airplane as a commodity or, better yet, as a container in which a number of other commodities are located. Did the seller spend big bucks to put a Garmin GNS 530 in the panel and do a number of nonrequired maintenance procedures on the airplane you’re looking at? If so, it’s like free money to a buyer. New tires, new paint, new interior and new avionics are all investments that owners won’t recoup when it comes time to sell their airplanes, so look for these things. And keep a close eye on engine times, both the number of hours on the engine and the calendar number on it. I’d rather have an engine with 600 hours on its five-year-old overhaul than one with 400 hours on its 12-year-old overhaul. When it comes to buying used, I can’t overemphasize the importance of the engine. If you’re looking at a high-time engine, work that into the equation. If you can’t get the cost of overhaul off the selling price, you might want to look at a different airplane. With avionics, it’s the same thing, sort of in reverse. That nice $25,000 Garmin WAAS navigator isn’t likely to go bad any time soon, but if you can get it for $5,000 over what the airplane without the unit would cost, then you just saved yourself a wheelbarrow full of cash. And don’t fool yourself into thinking that avionics are cheap. They’re not. A good deal on a Skyhawk with an old panel in which you need to later invest $30,000 or $40,000 to upgrade the avionics is probably not a better deal than a higher priced Cessna 172 with the avionics you like already installed. Bottom line: Let the previous owner pay for all the expensive stuff whenever possible.