Most general aviation pilots dream at some point about owning an airplane. There are no substitutes for the ability to jump into your own airplane and take off wherever, whenever, without any scheduling, time restrictions and costly minimum daily requirements. Or are there? If you’re not flying at least 100 hours per year, full ownership is hard to justify financially. The fact is there are many alternatives to ownership that could make a lot more sense. While these options might not provide the full pride of ownership, they offer great flexibility and, generally, lower costs. An airplane you own outright will cost you a significant outlay of cash each month, even if you are able to find reasonably priced parking, insurance and maintenance. At some point, there will be big bills, such as engine overhauls, as well as paint, interior and panel upgrades. Why not leave those expenses to someone else or, at the very least, share them? Ownership also limits you to one airplane and its capabilities. We all know there is no such thing as one perfect airplane for all types of flying. Having access to a variety of airplanes can be immensely satisfying, whether you’re heading out for a local fun flight where economy is more important than speed, out for a backcountry camping trip where a taildragger makes most sense, or planning a long cross-country trip for which you need an airplane that gets you there more efficiently. While aircraft-rental facilities provide options, they often offer “used and abused” airplanes, and scheduling can be a major issue, particularly if you want to take an airplane for an extended trip. Whether you are looking for more flying for your dollar or greater flexibility, here are some options that could help you get more out of your pilot’s certificate.
There is no question there are horror stories when it comes to airplane partnerships. You may balk at the idea of a partnership because you’ve loaned any number of prized possessions to friends or family who didn’t take good care of them, returned them dirty or failed to repair or replace damaged or destroyed items. Sharing the fixed cost of airplane ownership makes a ton of sense. Most pilots fly a couple of times a month at most, and it would be fairly uncommon for your partner or partners to need the airplane at the same time as you. Those partners can help share those fixed monthly costs. How does cutting that $5,000 annual bill into two or three pieces sound? The key to a happy partnership is a solid contract that lays out the details of what is expected of the partners. It’s best to include more information than less to make it crystal clear. For example, the agreement may include items such as cleaning the airplane, filling the tanks and making sure the oil is at a reasonable level for a cross-country flight each time the airplane is parked after a flight, or at least ensuring oil is readily available.
The contract should also include clear guidance of what happens when someone wants to sell the airplane. Perhaps the structure of the partnership should not be a 50-50 or one-third ownership agreement. It may be better that one partner owns the airplane outright while the others pay a monthly fee for access to it. Regardless, it’s also important to lay out what happens if one of the partners has an accident or incident. It wouldn’t be fair that all of the partners share the burden of the deductible, increased insurance rate or other costs associated with such a mishap. Get legal help when it comes to structuring a contract. You can contact experts such as Partners in Aviation (PIA), which specializes in putting together partnership deals that eliminate many of the problems that can be associated with shared ownership.
The most challenging part of finding a good partnership might be the location. Unless you are partnering on a business jet, the airplane has to be based at an airport within a reasonable distance of your home or you won’t use it as often. If you don’t know anyone who could be a potential partner, take a look at the bulletin boards at your local airport or post a note indicating your interest in a partnership. There are plenty of airplanes that sit parked for weeks or months, and chances are there is someone who is willing to share his or her airplane. Drive around on a Sunday afternoon and see if anyone has his or her hangar open. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Specialists like PIA may also be able to help you find a partner.
As you’re driving around the airport attempting to find a partner to share your flying expenses with, you might be surprised to find a group of people looking for the same thing. Or you might just find an established flying club. A well-organized flying club is likely the best and most affordable arrangement for a pilot flying fewer than 100 hours per year. The flying club spreads the fixed costs of flying, without the cost of a middleman, while simultaneously allowing for good airplane access. For example, if your annual inspection costs $5,000, a club with only five members will break that cost down to $1,000, leaving you with an additional $4,000 of cash to burn aircraft fuel with. In the past few years, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has put great emphasis on flying clubs for three main reasons, says Steve Bateman, director of the flying-clubs initiative at AOPA. Through this initiative, the organization aims to promote affordability of flying, the access to airplanes and the camaraderie flying offers to aviation lovers. Bateman says flying clubs provide “maximum fun, minimum cost,” which also happens to be the name of a popular AOPA seminar. There are around 650 flying clubs in AOPA’s network alone, and the organization aims to grow that number by 35 this year. Chances are, there is a flying club or maybe even a few at your local airport. And if there aren’t, you can get help starting your own. Flying clubs include anywhere from as few as three to a few hundred members, with fleets ranging from one airplane to many of various types, providing members access to a choice of capabilities depending on their needs for the day, whether it’s economy, greater number of seats, speed or range. Because each flying club is different, it’s important to find one that fits your needs. This can be a tricky task. Figure out your most common mission and make sure the club has a suitable airplane. If you need an airplane for business trips, a Cessna 152 may not be ideal. Also, you should know that flying clubs are not limited to Cessnas, Pipers and Cirruses. The Trojan Phlyers, for example, have North American T-28 Trojan warbirds as their club airplanes.
Bateman says the cost structure can vary significantly, but an average established club would look something like this: An initiation fee of $1,000 or more is paid in order to join the club. This is your share of the club, and the fee would likely be returned if you leave the club — generally, there would be a new member who would pay for your share. There are also fixed monthly dues, varying from about $50 to $200, covering hangar, insurance, annual inspection, tax filing and so on. Finally, an hourly fee is assessed to cover variable costs such as fuel, general maintenance and engine reserve. That fee is, however, much lower than a general rental since the monthly dues cover the fixed costs. Bateman estimates the cost for a light piston single to be about $75 per hour.
Bateman says a club with one airplane could realistically have up to 15 members without any major scheduling conflicts. Scheduling is done through different methods, such as Google groups or Web-based software such as Flight Circle or Flight Schedule Pro. These tools also help clubs track maintenance schedules, and most provide billing options.
If you can’t find a good club at a local airport, AOPA can help you start your own. Whether you have an airplane available or not, you only need a few people who are willing to group up. The formation of a flight club, including legal help to structure the bylaws and operating rules, and filing costs for the corporation, costs about $2,000, which, spread among five to 10 members, would be nominal. Then, of course, you need an airplane. Many clubs own their airplanes, but leasing is also an option.
There are no set regulations regarding flying clubs, but there are some FAA compliance standards, Bateman says, so it’s best to seek the help of AOPA’s Flying Club Group if you’re thinking of starting a club. For example, AOPA can help with the formation of a legal entity, preferably an LLC or corporation for liability protection, and AOPA requires the entity to have nonprofit status. The flying club should be run professionally through a board of directors.
It may sound complicated, but don’t be discouraged. If you’re starting from scratch, Bateman says, it can take as little as three months to get everything set up for a successful flying club, as long as an airplane is available.
Another great alternative to regular aircraft rentals, particularly for aircraft renters who travel, is OpenAirplane. The company’s database allows pilots to seamlessly rent airplanes from FBOs, flight schools and even private owners around the country. Booking and invoicing is all done online or through an app. OpenAirplane users report the service allows them to rent airplanes much in the same way as renting a car, and the cost is generally the same or only a few dollars more per hour than renting directly from a flight school. OpenAirplane users can, however, save a significant amount of money over regular renters. Rather than going through a checkout for each rental facility, generally a costly and time-consuming endeavor, OpenAirplane’s annual Universal Pilot Checkout provides access to the company’s database of airplanes around the country, which now consists of 380 airplanes at 111 locations, says OpenAirplane’s co-founder Rod Rakic. “Before OpenAirplane, you would be required to fly with the FBO’s instructor for two hours before they handed you the keys. Plus, you had to do this at every location, a real time and money waster that prevented many pilots from renting while at other-than-home locations,” says Bruce Russell, who has been using OpenAirplane for three years. The Universal Pilot Checkout also counts as a biannual flight review and helps provide discounts on rental insurance. Through an additional abbreviated checkout, you can rent multiple types of airplanes (these additional checkouts only need to be done once). Jim Aldridge, who has used OpenAirplane at several locations since 2015, says the process also eliminates currency requirements that otherwise make it difficult to rent in other locations. “For example, I may not rent in New York City for six months because I’m flying when I go to California every two months or so. In that case, I would fall under the ‘you haven’t flown here in a month so you must go up with a CFI’ clause,” he says. Aldridge describes the service as “very convenient.” “Being able to rent a plane with almost the same level of ease as a rental car makes my [pilot] certificate more useful,” he says. Rentals through OpenAirplane are not limited to FBOs and flight schools. There are some airplanes in the database that are owned by individuals. “It’s a simple way for owners to occasionally rent their airplanes to well-qualified pilots, which can help subsidize the cost of ownership,” Rakic says.
Unfortunately, the success of light piston fractional ownership companies has not been stellar. Probably the biggest one yet was OurPlane, which formed in 1998. OurPlane appeared to have a terrific program, with all new airplanes that were sold in up to one-eighth shares. The airplanes — Cessna 182s, Cirrus SR20s and SR22s, Piper Archers — were fully managed by OurPlane through local FBOs around the country (based on the location of the owners), providing red-carpet service. Neither the up-front cost of shares nor the monthly or hourly fees were cheap, but OurPlane did provide easy and affordable access to brand-new airplanes. After losses resulting from the economic downturn that began in 2008, OurPlane declared bankruptcy in 2010, allegedly leaving many shareholders with big investment losses. AirShares Elite met a similar fate in 2014, after 15 years in operation. But this form of shared ownership is far from dead. PlaneSmart has been operating since 2003. In a similar fashion to OurPlane and AirShares, PlaneSmart started with the Cirrus, offering shares of the single-engine piston out of Austin-Bergstrom and Addison airports in Texas. Since then, PlaneSmart has expanded to include more complex airplanes, such as King Airs and jets, and morphed into a leasing program that allows customers to fly airplanes affordably. PlaneSmart also helps with aircraft acquisitions and aircraft management. Atlanta-based Ascension Air also offers a variety of aircraft-use programs for the Cirrus SR22 and Eclipse 550. The SR22 is offered through a 20-hour “Prop Card” for $13,000, translating to $650 per hour. That might sound like a lot, but Ascension’s program promises a modern, clean, well-maintained airplane with what can only be described as VIP service. Ascension Air’s customer representatives pull the airplane out of the hangar, load your bags and park your car for you, and they offer full travel services at your destination. The airplanes are also available through 60-hour-per-year time-share and lease programs that require a significant amount of money up front and a monthly fee. But if you fly a lot, these programs cost less per hour. Similarly, the Eclipse is available at a 25-hour “Jet Card” rate for $40,000, or two partial-ownership programs offering 50 days per year with no hourly limitation.
A safety pilot is also available for the Eclipse. Like PlaneSmart, Ascension Air also offers a variety of aircraft-management services. Ascension Air’s fractional programs are currently available at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport in Florida, though the Eclipse is also offered to pilots at locations within 100 nm of those airports.
Another startup, DiamondShare, offers shared leases in new or nearly new Diamond DA40, DA42 and DA62 models. The program, formed by Diamond specialist and dealer John Armstrong, allows a buyer to purchase a new Diamond airplane and then offer 100-hour-per-year leases to up to three partners, who pay the owner a monthly fee and for the fuel they use. The hourly rate turns out to be very competitive with aircraft rentals, with many of the benefits of full ownership but almost none of the hassles. For the airplane owner, the money he receives from the three leaseholders usually covers the entire monthly payment on the airplane.
There are many alternatives to ownership and regular aircraft rentals. If the service you prefer doesn’t exist in your general vicinity, perhaps you can use one of these programs to create your own way to affordable, accessible flying that makes sense to you.