Leasebacks: Doing It Right

Before I started flying swept-wing turbojets, it seemed that they were much different than the smaller, mostly light GA, airplanes I had been operating. While they were beautiful, they also seemed foreign. I knew little about the hazard of Mach tuck, the purpose of a zero fuel weight or leading edge slat, the complexities of high altitude aerodynamics, extended operation, or international procedures.

Much to my surprise, after actually making the transition into a jet, it turns out that the similarities far outweighed the differences. Oh, they fly higher and faster, sure. There are additional systems to master. But the truly critical areas like aerodynamics and laws of physics didn’t change, nor did the rules of IFR flying or the basic airmanship requirements. On the contrary, I’d trust a Pitts pilot to fly a Gulfstream long before I’d think about turning a typical jet driver loose in the Pitts. When you look at accident reports, you’ll see the same thing whether the airplane is fast or slow, large or small: human error first and foremost. Poor IFR procedures, inadvertent stalls, failure to fly the airplane. Sound familiar?

Operating a business jet appears quite unlike formation flying... but I've learned the similarities outweigh the differences.

Operating a business jet appears quite unlike formation flying… but I’ve learned the similarities outweigh the differences.

Incidentally, I follow the blog of an Oregon-based student pilot who has been struggling with the pilotage and dead reckoning demands of her training. It occurred to me that the purely visual cross-country navigation she’s working on is far more challenging than zipping around with 3 FMS computers, 3 IRS units, 2 GPS boxes, 2 autopilots, 2 human pilots, and a million dollars worth of other avionics guiding the way. She plots courses by hand on a map, measuring distance and accounting for wind on a circular slide rule. Me? I tell ARINC where I wanna go and they do the rest. I don’t even need a computer; one phone call and a professional flight planner will take care of preparing and filing the flight plan. Our weight and balance requirements consist of tapping the occupied seats on a graphical map of the aircraft interior, telling the app how much fuel we have on board, and pressing a virtual button to have the data sent to the company. She’s doing it all by hand.

My point is, despite what the sleek airframe and six-figure salary might suggest, jets aren’t always harder to fly. They don’t necessarily require — or build — a more highly skilled aviator. Sometimes they do the exact opposite.

Another surprising similarity between the largest and smallest airplanes? The long and often painful road many first-time owners seem to tread. It might surprise you to learn that in the charter business, many if not most of the airplanes — even the really large ones — are leasebacks to the Part 135 certificate holder, just as a Skyhawk or Cherokee on the rental line at a local FBO is probably leased from a pilot/owner.

If I had a dime for every aircraft owner who ended up dissatisfied with the end result of leasing, I’d be a rich man indeed. Conventional wisdom tells us that aircraft leasebacks are often a bad deal for owners, especially those who have more than a purely business-minded attitude toward their pride and joy.

As AVweb’s Paul Bertorelli once said:

Nothing is quite as effective at turning a like-new airplane into a flying outhouse, as life on the line at a flight school. AOPA et al can refurbish all of the planes they want to. Unless/until flight schools can figure out how to keep them looking that way, it won’t matter very much.

Leasing to a flight school or charter company typically means high usage, above average wear-and-tear, and less pride-of-ownership than you’d typically find in a privately operated airplane. So why do so many owners venture down this path? Usually because it means the difference between realizing the dream of ownership and standing on the sidelines. Owning an airplane is a powerful draw, and the decision is not always made on the most logical of terms. Such is our romance with the skies!

Fortunately the truth is that leasing needn’t mean your airplane will be reduced to a ratty piece of junk. A personal example: a friend of mine purchased a new Skyhawk in the mid-1980s and put it on the rental line at my home airport. It’s been sitting outside in the salt air environment of Orange County’s John Wayne Airport for three decades… and it still looks fantastic. I’ve flown 30 year old Gulfstreams that still look new after 15,000 hours of charter flying. On the other hand, I’ve also had the misfortunate of operating Gulfstreams with half that time on them that were just about ready to be parted out.

So what gives? How do you do it? As with most things in life that are worthwhile: through a lot of attention and hard work.

After nearly two decades in the industry, the biggest and most consistent mistake owners make is to sign over the aircraft and then walk away, allowing the lessee to fully handle management of the aircraft. Yes, there are issues of operational control and other legalities. But that doesn’t mean owners should relinquish involvement, because the lessee usually in the business of operating airplanes, not owning them. There’s a big difference. Oh, they’ll ensure the airplane is airworthy, but nothing more. If the fading paint, failing interior and cosmetics hurt the aircraft’s value, that’s not their concern. It sounds callous, but rarely is that the intent. Keep in mind how difficult operating an aviation business is these days. Charter companies and flight schools have a lot on their plate and are just trying to survive.

An old airplane needn't be a ratty one.  This TravelAir 4000 looks, feels, and flies like new.  It was built in 1928.

An old airplane needn’t be a ratty one. This TravelAir 4000 looks, feels, and flies like new. It was built in 1928.

My friend’s cherry Skyhawk doesn’t break any less than other C172s. There’s nothing magical about it. But he flies the airplane at least once a week, using an IFR currency flight as an excuse to check out the airplane and assess its condition. If anything’s broken, it gets fixed rather than deferred. The aircraft goes to the paint shop annually to be touched up and have any corrosion properly treated. As a result, his airplane remains airworthy and is one of the most requested aircraft in the fleet by renters.

On charter airplanes, the owners are typically high net worth individuals who are too busy running their business to get directly involved with the nuances of aircraft maintenance. But they can delegate that task to someone — typically a pilot who will “manage” the aircraft as well as fly it — for a fee. After every trip, deficiencies ranging from inoperative equipment to smudges on the upholstery will be directly handled by that person, because they are specifically authorized to approve those expenditures on the owner’s behalf. They have the “power of the purse”, and it makes all the difference in the world. They get to know that airframe, its pros and cons, and develop a direct relationship with the individuals who work on it. Most of all, they function as the owners eyes and ears and are responsible to that person for the airplane’s condition.

An airplane on leaseback is going to fly more than one operated privately. The average privately-owned Part 91 airplane is flying something like 50 hours per years. On leaseback, it could easily be 500 hours. That translates into more frequent maintenance, repair, refurbishment, and overhaul of everything from engines to avionics. It’s not cheap, and it doesn’t necessarily even make ownership any less expensive than private operation. That’s one of the dirty little secrets of leasebacks. If you’re doing it to make ownership less expensive, you might be disappointed.

Even if it doesn’t save money, it can still provide benefits. For example, one of the most deleterious things you can do to an airplane is to simply let it sit. Big or small, these machines were made to fly. Long periods of disuse may provide relief from the wear-and-tear of frequent operation, but they lead to corrosion and dramatically raise the hourly cost of flying because maintenance events are amortized over fewer flight hours. As one friend sagely put it, the first hour he flies his RV-7 each year sets him back $10,000. Every hour after that can be flown for just the price of fuel.

So if you’re not flying much but don’t want to sell the aircraft, leasing can make sense. But don’t be fooled, leasing requires a solid commitment of money by the owner to keep the airplane in tip-top shape. Otherwise you’re simply prolonging the plane’s inevitable slide into tatters. The situation can become surprisingly acute when the owner has also bought more airplane than he or she can afford to operate.

As with all things, the key is education, and there is absolutely none whatsoever required prior to taking the expensive plunge. I’ve long felt that the aviation world would profit by having potential aircraft buyers take an ownership class before purchasing an airplane. Instead of learning through costly and unnecessary expenditures which blow up their budget, they could learn from the painful experience of folks who’ve already made those mistakes.

A better ownership experience translates into an improved life for the airplane. General aviation as a whole would benefit, and that’s something we can’t get enough of these days.

  5 comments for “Leasebacks: Doing It Right

  1. Ann
    June 14, 2016 at 7:39 am

    Another great, thought provoking article!

    • June 14, 2016 at 3:07 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it, Ann. Thanks for reading!

  2. Juan Ramon
    June 15, 2016 at 6:28 am

    A lot of leaseback owners find the tax write offs too enticing to skip. Your article doesn’t encompass that one big financial consideration.

    • June 15, 2016 at 5:28 pm

      Yes, I didn’t want to delve too deeply into the weeds of the financial considerations, choosing instead to reference them in a general way with the rhetorical question, “So why do so many owners venture down this path? Usually because it means the difference between realizing the dream of ownership and standing on the sidelines.”

      It’s not just the leaseback revenue. The tax benefits of aircraft ownership can be significant, especially for those whose taxable income is in the seven and eight figure category. The bonus depreciation on new equipment is a particularly enticing draw. I believe it motivates far more purchases and sales than is otherwise acknowledged. A bad financial year can be a good excuse to offload a depreciated aircraft and recapture the resulting tax basis, and a bumper year can leave a high net-worth individual looking for ways to offset a large tax liability.

      Above and beyond the world of aviation, it’s amazing how many financial decisions are driven largely by tax policy.

  3. July 27, 2016 at 8:38 am

    Great article. I would like to add that there are also important insurance considerations that are often overlooked or never properly addressed. Have an experienced aviation insurance agent review the lease (really, any and all contracts related to your aircraft) to make sure that the language aligns with the insurance contract. Many owners just assume that the operator carries coverage and that limits are adequate for their needs. Of course, neither of these is always the case. Contractual liability within aviation insurance can be tricky and leave you exposed to uncovered claims if not properly endorsed.

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