In the Information Age

December 1, 1999

Here in the Information Age, hardly a day goes by that we're not introduced to some new way to access — or be overrun by — data. Certainly in aviation, the way in which we preflight, fly, train, and even buy aircraft is dramatically different than it was just a few years ago.

We can now get a complete and legal preflight weather briefing and file a flight plan without ever talking to a briefer. In flight, GPS has become a way of life — often married to a moving map. The moving map is simply a way to graphically present what was once strictly alphanumeric information. When it comes time for the human brain to process such information, a picture is truly worth a thousand words. PC-based flight trainers are becoming routine; you can even log time on some systems.

I can personally attest to how different the aircraft purchasing process is today than it was just three years ago when I bought my first airplane. In late 1996 and early 1997, I shopped the old-fashioned way for a Cessna 172. I perused FBO bulletin boards, called a couple of broker friends, and scanned the classified ad pages of Trade-A-Plane, Flyer, and other aviation tabloids. In the end, the airplane I purchased happened to be parked right outside of my office window.

Last spring when I decided that it was time to move up, I set out on an entirely new shopping experience. This time I'd go paperless and sacrifice no trees — only a few electrons. Through the Internet, the choices for buying and selling an airplane are almost limitless. Ironically, Trade-A-Plane would continue to be a major source of information — this time through its expansive Web site. Other sources included the free classifieds on AOPA Online, available to any member; Controller, the online version of the printed publication by the same name; and Aircraft Shopper Online (ASO), a very robust site with thousands of aircraft for sale.

The electronic classified ads have an enormous advantage over the printed versions in that they can easily be sorted and categorized by the user. For me, it was easy to log onto any of the sites and quickly find the available Beech A36 Bonanzas and then — depending on the service — sort them according to price or perhaps by date of posting, or even both.

Many of the online classifieds include photographs — usually exterior, interior, and panel images.

At Trade-A-Plane, the Internet has truly revolutionized the way in which the 63-year-old business operates. Now run by the third generation of the same family, the familiar yellow publication has embraced the electronic media like few others. Anyone can log onto the site and search the display ad categories for any number of items. Need to find someone who makes rings for piston engines? A few keystrokes will show you at least three companies. To view the classified ads, where all of the aircraft for sale are located, the user must be a TAP subscriber. The printed publication comes out every 10 days. The Web site is updated every day.

TAP claims that 90 percent of all of the world's available aircraft are found within its pages and on its Web site. The pages and the site list on average 5,000 aircraft at a time. According to CEO Cosby Stone, grandson of the founder, the volume peaks at about 6,000 aircraft each summer at about the time of EAA's AirVenture. The slowest season is winter, when about 4,000 aircraft are available.

Stone notes that buyers today are ever more Internet-savvy. Some 6,000 individuals visit the TAP site each day.

Meanwhile, over at ASO, the site also serves about 6,000 to 6,500 visitors a day, according to President Tony Friend. They drop in to view some of the 2,500 aircraft for sale at any given time.

Unlike TAP, ASO does not charge buyers for access to its site. In both cases, sellers pay a listing fee.

Besides providing the classified ads, ASO also develops Web pages for about 250 of the brokers and dealers who regularly advertise on the site. If you see an aircraft that you are interested in, you can go directly to the dealer or broker's site to get additional information or to see other aircraft in inventory. About 95 percent of the aircraft for sale on the site are sold by dealers or brokers. Dealers and brokers are charged by the day for each ad, which encourages them to contact ASO quickly when an aircraft is sold. ASO can then delete the ad, keeping the site as up-to-date as possible.

As Friend points out, the Internet has changed the buying process in many ways. For one, it has leveled the playing field for all buyers, giving the shopper in Thailand the same chance of spotting a good airplane online as the shopper in Toledo. With printed publications, overseas customers often don't receive their copies until days or weeks after they are issued — when all of the "cream puff" aircraft are sold.

Internet shopping has also created regional markets not practical with print-ed publications. If you live in Australia and you're shopping for a Cessna Skyhawk, you'd probably rather buy one in Australia than have to import one from some other country. Most sites allow you to limit the search to a particular region first. If you don't find what you are looking for, you can broaden your search.

Friend believes that the Internet also helps consumers by making it easier to spot aircraft that are over- or undervalued. If you sort by price, you can easily see which aircraft seem to fit into a particular range, based on year, total time, equipment, and other factors. An overpriced aircraft will stand out, as will an underpriced one. How quickly can you hit the "send more information" button?

Most Internet services also offer other resources to help the consumer. ASO, for example, recently partnered with Conklin & de Decker to offer aircraft operating cost and performance data over the Internet. For a fee of about $25 to $100, depending on aircraft type, a user can download data from Conklin & de Decker, famed in the business jet market for its exhaustive reports on operating costs.

Likewise, TAP offers to its subscribers at no additional charge the ability to get highly detailed aircraft valuation reports from the National Aircraft Appraisers Association. Feed in data on aircraft and engine time, avionics, and other variables, and the site provides a report on what the aircraft should cost.

In my shopping I spent a lot of time using a similar service from AOPA Online. On the AOPA site, which is free to AOPA members, the valuation data comes from Vref. Using the service, it was easy for me to peg what I should ask for my Cessna Skyhawk, as well as to determine what I should pay for the Bonanza I was interested in.

When it came time to sell the Skyhawk, I placed a free ad in the classified section of AOPA's Web site. I also filled out a form on TAP's site, entered my credit card number, provided the words for the ad, and hit the Send button. The ad went on the Internet the next day. I received an e-mail from an interested buyer the following day. He asked for a more detailed spec sheet and photos — both of which I e-mailed back to him. I received several other calls, but it was that first contact who ended up buying the airplane.

The Internet came to the rescue again when it came time to draft a sales contract. I found a sample sales contract on AOPA Online. I adapted it to my needs, had it reviewed by an attorney, and then sent it off to the buyer. The site also provided a checklist of items necessary for the closing as well as access to other services for buyers, including AOPA's Title and Escrow Service. You can even apply for financing and get an insurance quote through the site.

For buying, I checked all of the sites regularly and soon found on the TAP site an A36 Bonanza in my price range. This particular seller didn't upload photos with the ad, but many did. So when I did receive photos of the prospective aircraft, I could easily compare its condition and equipment to those of the many others I had already looked at online.

As TAP's Stone notes, the Internet has brought together buyers and sellers in ways never before possible. Speaking like the accountant that he is, Stone reports that, in economic terms, the Internet has improved the speed and liquidity of the market, making it more efficient. In fact, I've noticed that my own liquidity has decreased greatly since the purchase, as my efficiency in acquiring new stuff for the airplane has increased. I wonder how long my checkbook can take life here in the Information Age.

Links to additional information about buying and selling aircraft may be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links/links9912.shtml). E-mail the author at [email protected].