How to buy an airplane

Buyers' Guide » 2012
How to buy an airplane
A good used airplane will cost less and can save you millions. However, the process of acquiring the right one is generally far more involved than a new aircraft purchase. (Photo by David McIntosh)
Thursday, August 23, 2012 - 12:00pm

Think of buying an airplane as an exercise akin to building a house or purchasing an old one.

With a house, your requirements play a big role in determining what you buy. You need such basic amenities as bedrooms, bathrooms and a kitchen. But emotion also drives your purchasing decision. No one really needs a 30,000-square-foot home with marble floors, refrigerators that connect to the Internet and 20-foot-tall windows; these things are aspirational. They make a statement about you and your preferences.

An airplane can make an even bigger statement and it’s relatively easy to get caught up in the moment, no matter how much research you’ve done and how carefully your accountant and lawyer have crunched the numbers and reviewed the documents. Few who buy 6,000-nautical-mile-range, 15-passenger aircraft regularly use them to their full potential. Yet when these aircraft taxi onto a ramp, they stand above the rest. They have presence. The temptation is often to buy more airplane than you really need. If you or your company can afford this, great. Otherwise, rightsizing your selection may save you from losing or never enjoying the unparalleled convenience, safety and security a private aircraft provides.

That said, the first question is whether to buy new or used.

If you plan on leasing an airplane, if cost certainty is important and if you plan on flying much more than 400 hours a year and can’t afford any down time, go new. New aircraft typically have warranties that coincide with the length of a lease, especially if you select manufacturer financing. A new aircraft purchase or leasing package often includes flight and maintenance crew training. Manufacturers are particularly attentive to their new customers because they want to put them in another airplane five years down the road.

The older an aircraft gets, the more it costs to maintain. David Wyndham, a principal in the aviation consulting firm Conklin and de Decker, said buyers should be particularly careful when buying anything more than 15 years old. Aircraft between 15 and 25 years old typically require costly and lengthy maintenance inspections, engine overhauls and corrosion repair. Anything older than 25 years will have availability issues due to maintenance.

New aircraft, compared with really old aircraft, typically have lower life-cycle costs. They also have quieter engines and burn less fuel. Their cabins are more comfortable. Their avionics provide pilots with superior situational awareness. Their parts are more robust and last longer.

New aircraft are far from a panacea, of course. There is the small matter of price. True, initial customers for a model typically get discounts but that’s at least partly because the first airplanes off any production line generally have a few issues. Some of these, such as with the Cessna 441, Learjet 45 and Falcon 7X, have been serious enough to temporarily ground entire fleets. (They were resolved in the cases of these aircraft, all of which went on to garner good reputations.) Today, thanks to computer design and simulation and extensive instrument bench testing, new airplanes, even the lower serial numbers, have fewer problems, but you can’t eliminate them all.

In any case, while the purchase price is an important number, a more important one is often the ­life-cycle expense–the total cost of the aircraft over the time you plan to keep it and the hours you plan to fly it. You can get projections for this data from Wyndham’s firm and several other sources, for both new and used aircraft.

Just because an airplane is new doesn’t mean you can’t negotiate a favorable deal. Typically, some customers decline their delivery positions and manufacturers are generally eager to move these aircraft quickly. If an orphan airplane is already off the production line, the urgency increases, particularly in the fourth quarter, as the clock ticks down on year-end ­bonuses and commissions. The calendar can be a cruel beast, but you can make it work for you.

A good used airplane will still cost less and can save you millions. According to the aircraft price data service Vref, bargains abound. You can purchase a 2002 Hawker 800XP for as little as $3.5 million–70 percent less than its new price. A 2002 Gulfstream IV-SP can be had for less than half of its new price. A 2002 Falcon 50EX that sold new for $19.5 million now costs $7.6 million. However, the process of acquiring the right used airplane is generally far more involved than a new aircraft purchase. Selecting the wrong used airplane can be annoying, say when the toilet line freezes, or costly when, for example, an engine doesn’t survive to the recommended TBO (time between overhaul). In extreme cases, it can kill you.

So unless you’re a licensed airframe and powerplant aircraft mechanic with detailed knowledge of the type of aircraft you’re thinking of buying, you need to find an outside expert–an individual or organization well versed in the make and model you want to buy. You might think this would be someone who works for the company that makes the airplane–and you would be mostly wrong.

This is particularly the case with aircraft that are no longer in production. Many of the most knowledgeable in-house experts have long since retired or, in the wake of the recent economic unpleasantness, found other employment. Fortunately, numerous independent maintenance shops specialize in particular aircraft models, with knowledge handed down from the old salts to the young guns. There are pilots who have flown these airplanes for 10 to 20 years or more and can take one up and wring it out after the mechanic green lights it for a test flight. Certain insurance brokers likewise specialize. So do training providers and refurbishment houses.

Finding the right team, whose members don’t have conflicting interests, and putting them all together to work for you can be a daunting task, but it is no less necessary than having a skilled team perform due diligence when making any other type of investment. You need someone to quarterback that team–probably a management or consulting company or a broker. But how do you find the right one?

Well, you can ask your friends at the country club. Or the National Aircraft Resale Association (NARA) can help. NARA members subscribe to a strict code of ethics and the organization has a library of documents written by industry experts that cover all aspects of the purchase decision. NARA can provide you with a list of brokers and any corresponding list of aircraft makes and models that are their specialties.

A good broker will give you a complete aircraft acquisition plan. This includes a list of aircraft that suit your mission, along with information on their features and benefits, strengths and weaknesses, direct operating costs, refurbishment costs and market history. He should also be able to assist you in minimizing your tax liability, finding an aviation attorney to draft the purchase agreement and setting up the ownership structure, placing the aircraft on a Part 135 certificate if you wish to make it available for charter and locating a qualified flight crew if you need one. He should have the answers for you on what types of modifications and refurbishment make sense for an aircraft of the vintage you want and which ones will put you financially upside down in the airplane. Finally, he should be able to give you a list of customer references for both himself and the mechanics he plans to use to conduct the pre-buy inspection.

Once you or your representative (broker, consultant or management company) have put your team together, the fun begins. As you sort through the plethora of available aircraft–this is still a buyer’s market–you can save a lot of time and headache by asking yourself two key questions: Who owned the airplane? And how did they use it? “Pedigree” is an important factor broker Josh Mesinger considers in evaluating a used aircraft and so should you.

Not every used aircraft on the market was operated by a Fortune 100 company with a flight department that pampered it with in-house maintenance, but those that were almost always represent great buys and deliver few if any surprises. The same is true of aircraft that are enrolled in “power by the hour” engine-maintenance plans such as Honeywell’s MSP and whole-aircraft maintenance plans like JSSI’s “Tip-to-Tail” program.

The aircraft manufacturers also offer programs. Cessna’s ProParts covers airframe and avionics parts and consumables. Its ProTech program covers labor for scheduled and unscheduled maintenance at Cessna-owned service centers. Hawker Beechcraft offers Support Plus Parts and Support Plus Parts and Labor. Customers can tailor their packages to incorporate engines, propellers and auxiliary power units. Other programs include Gulfstream’s PlaneParts, Dassault’s Falconcare and Bombardier’s Smart Parts.

Generally, these programs are transferable to new owners. The application and monthly fees for used aircraft are based on time in service, a review of the log books and an inspection of the airplane.

These programs do more than take the uncertainty out of maintenance costs; they ensure that scheduled maintenance is done right and on time. Aircraft enrolled in these programs can command a sales premium of 10 percent or more and rightfully so. You shouldn’t necessarily rule out buying aircraft that aren’t in these programs, but they do require more scrutiny.

Cosmetics also matter. After all, your airplane is an extension of your brand and you want it to look fresh, clean and up-to-date. You can get that “new airplane smell” with fresh paint and interior. Conversely, a cosmetically unappealing 10-year-old airplane will sell for a lot less. According to Vref, a 2002 Gulfstream GIV-SP or 2002 Falcon 900 EX with an old interior will sell for up to $1 million less than one that has had a refurbishment. Good paint is even more important. Invariably, an aircraft with deteriorating paint has an underlying corrosion problem and that can be very expensive. Bad paint jobs (hint: the paint bubbles) that merely mask corrosion are even worse.

Fresh overhauls and inspections, or their absence, will respectively also add or deduct value. Overhauling both engines on the 2002 GIV will run you $1.8 million; overhauling the landing gear will set you back another $300,000. The C check maintenance inspection on a 2002 Falcon 900 EX will cost $250,000.

You need to carefully weigh all of these variables when making an offer on a used aircraft.

However, depending on your lift needs, a third path may also be worth investigating. No longer is the choice just new or used. You can opt for a remanufactured aircraft. These come in two main flavors: bring your own airplane to the remanufacturer or allow it to buy and refurbish an aircraft for you. The Total Eclipse and Nextant are two recent programs that fall into the latter category. Eclipse Aviation is delivering two Total Eclipse light jets per month. For $2.15 million, customers receive a remanufactured aircraft with new paint and interior, the Avio IFMS, a factory warranty, an engine service plan and replacement of problematic parts. The $3.795 million Nextant 400XT is a Beechjet 400A/Hawker 400XP refitted with more-fuel-­efficient Williams International FJ44-3AP turbofan engines, Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 avionics and new paint and interior.

Whatever purchasing path you follow, just be sure to keep your emotions in check, do your homework and get expert help. Buying any airplane involves a big expenditure, but it gives you a priceless commodity: time. As such, this can be one of the most gratifying and productive purchases you’ll ever make.

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Srboljub Savic
on January 25, 2013 - 11:43am

Excelent review of "simple task".

If you ask your spouse and you have unlimited money, it is much simpler, buying new "toy". You mentioned most of factors and points on the way, I would like to add some more, important to users out of USA.

Selecting type and model, it is rcomendable totake in account fleet/s of airplanes in your place/area. In addition, it is not neglectable, distribution of mainteance afcilities & supporting comapnies around. Some areas have scarse suc facilities and support.

[Having experience, from recomending type&model, new or used to the customer ( which even left me to guess capacity, range, ...having only few inforamtion), trough purchase, engineering-check, modifications, interior modification & refurbishment, painting, spare parts, tools and material (including wing de-icing fluid), mechanic, pilots training to registration (with his initials in registartion mark), with final delivery to his base, aircraft, ready for business flights (accctualy made, next morning), I'm able to agree and confirm all you mentioned.I this case, total cost was ~2,3 m.$ andfew years later, sold for near 3 m.$]

Most difficult part of the story is dealing with first aircraft user, being in business far from aviation, whish thinks that, there is no big difference, between his luxury car and airplane. Also, usually, he do not like expalnation,why he could not put all furniture, entertaining and communication equipment - weight.

Sincerely yours,
Dipl. ing. Srboljub Savic

No Avatar
Chris Coombs
on August 30, 2012 - 2:52pm

Great article, to bad most buyers don't take the time to follow the recommendations you lay out.

Its often sad when you have a new customer bring his/her plane in for some work and you start pointing out items that are not correct. People treat planes like cars, which do not have federal requirements, just get in and go. New paint and interoir don't make the thing go, solid maintenance is what counts.

Hey its only money. Pay me now or pay me later.

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Aaron Wilson
on November 13, 2012 - 10:48am

Great article in the Buyers’ Guide [“How to Buy an Airplane”]! I’m a 40-year-old pilot/mechanic/manager/educator, who was asked by a potential employer to conduct an analysis and ultimately present travel recommendations.

The process quickly turned complex due to the emotional component of the prospective buyer. My potential employer was ready to do a handshake deal with a “business friend” on a 1983 Citation III. You should have seen the spec sheet. Fortunately for him, I was able to discourage the deal. I’ve since moved into collegiate aviation.

My research turned up many topics you covered in your piece. I couldn’t help but read it with a grin.

I did also want to make an observation about my research in the aircraft selection process. I found very little written concerning the quantifying of risk. I started working on a plot graph that compared aircraft age with days on market. I was trying desperately to come up with an easy, yet accurate way to communicate the added risks associated with buying a used aircraft.

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Quote/Unquote

“When you get into the larger aircraft it becomes like a hotel, with dozens of staff supporting the plane based in a galley area down below. You have very comprehensive cooking facilities, and on larger aircraft we have looked at theatres, with spiral staircases and a Steinway grand piano. The limitations for what you can put inside a plane are pretty much the limits of physics, and even money cannot always overcome that. Even so, people are still always trying to push [the limits]. ”

-Howard Guy of Design Q, a UK-based consultancy