Over the years, calculating the cost to own an airplane is one of the most frequently asked questions I receive. There are a lot of different cost factors that go into owning an airplane. The purchase price is just one piece of the entire cost of the airplane ownership pie. Other pieces include taxes, hangar or tie down costs, fuel, oil, insurance, ramp fees, engine reserves, routine maintenance, inspection items and subscriptions to name a few. The following article will help you determine what costs are involved in owning an airplane and how to plan your finances accordingly. Keep in mind the following article offers a generic estimate on how to calculate the ownership costs of most piston airplanes.
First, we will divide the total cost of ownership into two sections; the first section will be the indirect cost, and second section direct cost.
Indirect costs are the costs that you will pay whether or not the airplane flies. These expenses include the purchase price of the airplane (or monthly payments), insurance, tie down or hangar fees, subscription fees, taxes, and tax benefits.
Let’s start with the first indirect cost I mentioned, purchase price or capital cost. This is one of easiest expenses to calculate. If you finance the airplane, get a quote from the bank on the down payment required and interest rate. Currently, rates are approximately 6% with a minimum of 15% down and 20 year financing. As an example, if you put 20% down on a new DA40XLS priced at $350,000, your monthly payment would be just over $2,000 a month over 20 years.
To calculate insurance fees, call your insurance agent and obtain a quote for the airplane you are considering purchasing with your experience level.
Hangar fees and tie downs are self explanatory. Call the airport or FBO where you want to base your airplane and ask what options are available. Usually there are about four choices: tie down (leaving your airplane outside in the elements), covered (airplane is outside in the elements but has a shade covering), hangar in common (airplane is constantly moved around in a large hangar shared with several other airplanes), and finally an individual or T hangar. At many airports hangar space is scarce so don’t be surprised if you end up on a waiting list. Hangar prices vary according to your location. My T hangar in Concord, NC costs just north of $300/month while that same hangar in Fort Lauderdale would cost well over $1,000/month. If you keep your airplane outside, please be sure to at least cover it. It will protect the interior and the avionics. Also, keep in mind that some insurance companies will lower your premium if you can hangar your airplane rather than keep it on tie downs.
Subscription services may not apply to you. If you own a J-3 cub, you can skip to the next paragraph. Almost all aircraft manufactured after the early 1990s offer an IFR GPS. If you have an IFR GPS, you will need to subscribe to a monthly update to keep your database legal to navigate solely by GPS and shoot GPS approaches. If you have XM weather, you will pay around $30/month for the basic subscription or $50/month for the full package. The winds aloft feature on the full package is more than worth the additional cost to get it. XM radio is additional. If you own a glass panel airplane, you may opt for Garmin’s safe taxi charts and/or approach plate services. Visit http://www.mygarmin.com for cost information. Jeppesen also offers approach plates for glass cockpit airplanes. This service requires an initial upfront cost to install and a higher monthly payment, compared to Garmin’s approach plate services.
Unfortunately taxes do not disappear with airplanes, with the exception of tax exempt corporations (see an aviation tax consultant for more information to see if you qualify). Taxes vary from state to state. In Florida, it is 6% of the purchase price. In North Carolina it is a flat tax of $1,500. North Carolina, however, charges property tax which varies by county and by city. Where I live in North Carolina, the airplane property tax rate is around 63 cents per 100 dollars, and I have a city tax of 42 cents per 100 dollars. If you use the airplane for business, you may be able to depreciate the use and cost of the airplane which benefits your estimated cost of ownership. Please consult with an airplane tax specialist to determine your individual situation.
DIRECT OPERATING COSTS
Calculating the direct operating costs is a little trickier. There are different ways of calculating what it will cost you each hour to fly. My method is just one method, but it works. Here you need to decide on how many hours you plan on flying a year to establish an annual base budget.
Let’s start with the basics. Most pistons engines will require an oil change every 50 hours. Depending on where you live, a standard oil change will cost between $150 to $300. Call the local mechanic on the field and find out what he charges. If you plan on flying 100 hours a year, the math is simple.
Fuel consumption varies according to different aircraft. You can usually visit a manufacturer’s website or consult the POH to get the cruise fuel burn. If you are flying an aircraft with a worn out engine, consider the published fuel burn to be the best case scenario (which often is not the case). Find out what avgas costs at your local airport and do the math. Keep in mind avgas prices vary
Engine and propeller reserves are calculated into the equation even if you own a low time or new airplane that you plan on selling long before overhaul. You can usually get a quote from a local FAA engine repair station on the cost of overhauling your engine or on the cost of installing a factory remanufactured engine. Take that price and divide it by the hours remaining till TBO and you will get an idea of how much you need to put away each hour. If you plan on buying a twin, double the fuel, engine and propeller costs.
Scheduled maintenance is another cost worth planning for. Every year your airplane will be due for an inspection. Again, prices will vary depending on where you do your inspection. Shop rates in South Florida average $95/hour, while in North Carolina they are around $70/hour. Call a service center familiar with your airplane and see what they charge for a standard annual inspection. Keep in mind that the price they quote you doesn’t include squawk items, airworthiness directives, service bulletins or regulatory replacement items. These are extra costs. If your airplane is still under warranty, then you shouldn’t expect any surprise repair bills when you pick your airplane up. A safe bet for budgeting additional expenses for an airplane out of warranty is to double the price of the annual inspection fee; this budgeting will cover almost any unexpected surprises that may occur during the year. You may also consider a reserve for paint, interior, and avionics upgrades in which case you will want to put away a little extra.
Finally, you will need to determine what your airplane will be worth if and when it comes time to sell it. Airplanes typically stop depreciating after 5 years. Like cars, their depreciation rates vary. Companies such as Vref and Aircraft Bluebook offer retail pricing and trade-in pricing.