13 Ways to Fly for Less

(And a Few Ways Not to!)

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Chris Gall

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.

4. Rent, Lease, Borrow
As I mention elsewhere, you don't have to own an airplane to fly. Flying a lot is a bit more problematic but still doable in many cases. If you crunch the numbers, renting makes a lot of sense for a lot of pilots. If you fly a moderate amount, let's say 75 hours a year, a decent airplane — we'll budget $150 an hour — will cost you $11,250, a reasonable cost for a good amount of flying. There are potential roadblocks here, though. In some places it's hard or impossible to find decent rental airplanes at any price. And if you travel, well, many flight schools put strict limits on how long you can have the airplane. Policies are generally less restrictive at flying clubs, though you do need to pay dues, and depending on the size of the club and the number of airplanes it has, availability can be dicey. That said, the flying club that I belonged to when I lived in Connecticut had a number of nice airplanes that were well-managed, and the availability was quite good.

Instead of renting, you could also take that same chunk of change you’d pay for a rental and see if a friend might want to let you use his or her airplane for a block of time. For an owner looking for some cash to underwrite his ownership, selling a block of time can be a tempting option, especially if the additional pilot is well-qualified and a known quantity.

5. Simulate
Recurrent training is one of those things you simply don't want to put off (though I suspect it's one of the first things some pilots stop doing when money is tight). The good news is that there are some great ways to cut training costs while still getting the same (or better) benefit. One is using an advanced aviation training device (AATD). These low-cost training devices are not only cheaper than renting an airplane and an instructor, but they also can be used to fly your required IFR procedures to keep your instrument proficiency up to standards. Moreover, simulators are a very efficient way of getting training done. Instead of droning in an airplane until you get to the initial approach fix, in a computerized trainer you can just fly the approaches, getting more done in less time. And it's fun, to boot.
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6. Ditch the Hangar**
Pilots with hangars, especially those who live outside the Snow Belt, should ask themselves how much they really need a little house for their airplane. At a typical rate of $250 a month — it can be much more in some areas of the country — you're talking $3,000 a year. For a few hundred dollars you can get a very nice cover that will protect your airplane's cabin from the sun and the rain, and for a couple of hundred more you can get wing covers. The overall savings will be a couple of thousand dollars a year. Granted, it's hard to leave the hangar life once you've experienced it, but if your airplane's paint wasn't that good to begin with, it's a great way to save a couple of thousand dollars a year.
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7. Hunt for Cheap Gas**
You don't have to be a hedge fund manager to figure out that fuel is a big part of the cost equation in flying. If you fly, for example, 75 hours a year at a typical single-engine fuel flow of 15 gallons per hour at a fuel cost of $5 per gallon, you end up spending $5,625 a year on fuel. If you can cut the cost of your fuel by a dollar a gallon, you can save more than a thousand dollars, even figuring in the extra time it might take to stop for fuel somewhere short of your home airport. Pilots of twins or turbines, it goes without saying, can save a lot more. The key is in hunting for that cheap fuel, and there are a number of good ways to do that these days, including on websites, portable navigators and flight planning programs. The difference in prices can be substantial, and given current pricing, the $1 a gallon discount goal is easily attainable.

8. Go Portable
If you're thinking about getting an avionics upgrade so you can have charts or XM Weather in the cockpit, one way to save a lot of cash is to go portable. As much as I love nice, panel-mounted avionics, for a lot of owners it makes sense to buy a portable device — there are many good ones available — and get your XM Weather, charts and even, with some units, traffic there. There are nice holders available from suppliers like Air Gizmos on which to mount your "handheld" to the panel, giving you all the convenience of a panel-mount unit at a fraction of the cost.

9. Go Paperless
Paper charts, whether from Jeppesen or the government, are expensive and a hassle. One way to save some green (and go green in the process) is by getting your approach information digitally. I love my Jepp charts and get them via Avidyne's CMax electronic charts in the panel of my PlaneSmart Cirrus (itself a money saver compared with a paper chart subscription). But if I had to buy charts separately, I'd cut costs by getting government charts electronically, most likely through an electronic flight bag (EFB). Even given the cost of the EFB, you can save hundreds of dollars a year (not to mention the weight you save in the process) going with e-charts instead of binders.

10. Let Others Fly Your Airplane
Whether it's letting a friend fly a block of time in your airplane or leasing your airplane back to the local flying club or flight school, there's money to be saved by letting others use your airplane. When it comes to lease-back, there are potential tax advantages too. There are downsides: Your airplane gets flown a lot more, so you need to make sure you provide for the increased cost of maintenance now and down the road, but the financial benefits of letting others contribute can be great.
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11. Wheel and Deal**
For airplane sellers, these are terrible times. But for buyers, it's never been better. So if you're looking to buy a new or used airplane, you can negotiate very aggressively. It's a buyer's market, so acting as though the asking price, whether from the airplane manufacturer, a dealer or a private seller, is set in stone could cost you thousands, or more.

12. Downsize
How much airplane do you really need? Will a Skyhawk suffice instead of a Skylane? Will a turboprop do the job of a jet? There's a lot to be said for flying smart on less airplane. When I was flying a Saratoga, I used to tease a friend of mine with a "much" faster airplane about how much earlier I'd have to leave my house to get to the destination at the same time he did. It was usually something on the order of 20 minutes. Ask yourself how much airplane you really need. Do you need six seats — or the additional carrying capacity or turbocharging of a more expensive model, for that matter? A buddy of mine who, like the rest of us, is getting a little older recently bought a light-sport aircraft after years of flying a nice, late-model Mooney. His flying habits had changed, so he changed his airplane habits to match. He now rents a more cross-country-capable model a couple of times a year when he wants to go on longer trips and enjoys his LSA the rest of the time.

13. Write It Off
Being able to write off your airplane expenses on your taxes is a huge potential money saver, but it's also very complicated. And you've got to get it right if you want to stay out of hot water with Uncle Sam. That said, if you do use your airplane for business and you're not reimbursed for it, you might be in for some big savings. But unless you're a pro, get help with it.

There are many other ways that you can save money in your pursuit of more flying hours. You can shop for maintenance and do your own oil and brake pad changes; you can share your hangar; you can build your airplane; you can plane-pool to AirVenture with a buddy or two. Wherever you look, there are places to save.

And there are surely a number of money-saving strategies that I haven't mentioned or that haven't even occurred to me. If you've got some ideas or some stories you'd like to share, we'd love to hear them. Drop us a note at our website, flyingmag.com, or at edit@flyingmag.com.

Forget About It! Ways You Can't (or Don't Want to) Save Money
Despite all these cost-saving suggestions, airplanes still cost real money. They cost money when you buy them, they cost money when you fly them, and they cost money when they're just sitting there looking pretty. If you want to fly, be prepared to shell out some dough.

And remember that you need to be smart about saving money. For example, liability and physical damage insurance costs a lot, and part of the reason is that it’s a relatively small market and there are very few providers. There’s nothing you can do about either of those factors. While you can save money by shopping around for insurance, the bottom line is that, if you need insurance, and most of us do, it’s going to cost you.

Storage, too, is a tough nut to crack. Where you keep your airplane is usually dictated by where you live, and if there are a few airports nearly equidistant, you're a lucky one. Most of us face the dilemma of either paying more than we want to for hangar or tiedown or driving farther to get cheaper rent. Few of us are willing to drive farther to make that tradeoff, and I'd strongly counsel against it. Who wants to make getting to the airport more of a chore to save $50 a month? Maybe you would.
Subscriptions are another place where a lot of pilots scrimp, and it's usually a bad idea. Flying on stale data can save money, sure, but it can be dangerous and/or illegal, and it exposes you to unnecessary risk. Ponying up for the subs isn't cheap, but it's the prudent thing to do.

Likewise, keeping your logbook legal can be done with the minimal time invested, but few of us can stay proficient with the minimum. And the truth is that training is the best value in aviation. So go ahead and spring for some extra instructional time and some additional peace of mind.