Gear Up: Bad Joke?

There is nothing funny about this insurance market.

Well, yes, I had left my phone on the Virgin Atlantic flight to London. So, yes, I was out of touch for the six days it took me to get it back from “Missing X” somewhere in the ductwork of Heathrow Airport. So, yes, there was a delay in receiving your voicemail.

When I did call our longtime aviation-insurance broker, Wenk Insurance, I was rewarded with some somber news regarding the insurance on our 2000 Cessna Citation CJ1—my pride and joy. When I say longtime broker, I am not kidding. I have had completely satisfying relationships with its founder, his daughter and now her son, named Tucker. That’s 40 years’ worth of trust.

The news was not just somber; it felt catastrophic. Our previous insurance for the CJ1 clocked in at just under $15,000 a year for full hull coverage (small deductible) and $5 million in liability with certain understandable, and reasonable, requirements for me to have a minimum number of hours, annual training and a current medical.

The new quote from a different carrier for the same coverage with the same requirements was $45,869—a 212 percent increase.

Let that sink in. Not 15 percent, not 100 percent, but 212 percent. I paid about that much for my first house, but I had help from the GI Bill back then.

Reunited with my phone and sitting at the airport, I felt that old familiar, harrowing feeling. Years ago, airplane ownership was a touch-and-go affair for me. Hangar space and costs, insurance availability and costs, and the ever-lurking maintenance surprises were pushing up against a young man’s capacity to pony up. Many a time, I thought I’d have to sell. Somehow, every time, I found a way to keep the airplane and dispatch the wolves from the hangar door.

As I grew older and had more financial security, these old fears became just cautionary tales filed in the back of my mind—right next to that time I forgot to pay the gas bill and came home to find the apartment freezing cold. But now, this quote would make keeping the airplane untenable.

I quickly emailed Tucker to find out that insurance at a lower price was available, but I’d have to have an approved ATP pilot in the right seat. For a measly $16,000, I could keep the same coverage as I was enjoying that very moment. Of course, the whole point of a single-pilot light jet is that you get to fly yourself, when and where you want, without hiring somebody who has no desire to go where you are going when you want to go.

As a steady stream of steam shot out of my ears, I thought about the predicament. I was, for many years, the proverbial doctor in a Beech Bonanza. I was a devoted hobbyist, one whose experience had been accrued at the lightning clip of 100 hours per year over 47 years. I had never flown professionally, never flown a jet. (Also true: I had never owned a Bonanza.)

Read More from Dick Karl: Gear Up

That all changed when, in an insane career change, I gave up being a surgical oncologist at a university to fly Part 135 in a Cessna Citation CJ3. There, I learned what professional flying was all about. I can see how underwriters might be skeptical of owner pilots and their single-pilot light jets. Maybe, I thought, I could negotiate something with my longtime insurance company. And so I sat down to write the following:

“I understand the underwriters’ concerns. I know several owner pilots, and a few worry me too. I have heard one brag about landing with minimum fuel after flying a leg well in excess of published range, and I have known of one taking off his jet from a taxiway by mistake. I work hard to not be that guy.

Not until I flew professionally did I fully understand the difference between a pro and a hobbyist. I do not fly at night. I do not try to extend range. I do not land at airports without instrument approaches. I do not land on runways less than 4,000 feet. I obsessively use checklists. … (As for the issue of age,) I am not overweight, take no medicines other than eyedrops and don’t fly when fatigued. Yes, our Premier jet suffered a bird strike. Had the airplane been supported by the manufacturer, the repairs would have cost less than two years’ worth of premiums.”

Thanks to the Wenks’ advocacy, I was rewarded with a new policy with less liability coverage at a 51 percent increase in premium. Threateningly, it came with a warning: No single-pilot flying after next year.

You have, no doubt, read the explanations for the “hardening” of the aviation-insurance market. Many companies have left the market, upsetting the supply-demand ratio. Some companies argue increased claims, but when I look at FAA and National Transportation Safety Board websites, I don’t see a 200 percent spike in accidents or costly fatalities. In fact, general aviation deaths have ranged from 300 to 500 per year for a decade.

Some claim the secondary insurance market has been disrupted by the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max, thus influencing the insurance price for a Cessna 172. For all I know, some might be claiming the rise of two-toned shoes is the culprit. What’s with the white bottom and brown top?

All I know is that we are threatened. My broker assures me that my carrier knows the bird strike that took out our Premier Jet was not pilot error. Nonetheless, he says, they had to write a big check. That is true. But when I look back at 48 years of premium payments I have made, factor in the salvage price they got for the Premier’s engines, etc., their loss isn’t that much. Certainly not 212 percent more than last year. LOL? I don’t think so.


This story appeared in the March 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

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