The cost of not flying

March 1, 2005

Aviation journalist Mark R. Twombly and his two partners own a Piper Aztec.

I killed an hour or so the other day wandering around one of the ramps at my home field just looking at airplanes. I was struck by how many obviously hadn't moved from their tie-down spots for some time. The signs of lack of use are easy to spot: spreading contact patches on the main tires; deflated nose-gear struts; dirty, chalky paint; pools of bird droppings on the horizontal stabilizer; and rusty screw heads. These are sad, sure signs that, for whatever reasons, the owners have stopped flying their beloved birds.

Some simply may have lost interest; some may have had family, career, or other major influences bump the airplane down their list of life's priorities; and some may have been so surprised by the expense of ownership that they have ceased flying, or perhaps are taking a break from it. That last one doesn't make a lot of sense. Parking the airplane to avoid spending money on it qualifies for cliché status — cutting off your nose to spite your face.

No question that flying around in a general aviation aircraft just for the fun of it is an expensive way to get our jollies compared with a lot of other sporty things we can do with our time. It's also a pricey mode of transportation compared with the family car, a Greyhound bus, or the cheap seats on the airlines. Flying has been expensive ever since Wilbur and Orville had to rent a shed on the dunes at Kitty Hawk to hangar their Flyer. Sorry to say that the check-writing activity associated with being a pilot is not likely to diminish in any significant way. We do it; we pay the price, because we get it all back in satisfaction.

But if flying is expensive, not flying also can be costly, even for nonowner renter pilots. The only way to maintain currency as required by the FAA is to fly at least as often as the regulations require. Once you fall outside the currency envelope, it will take some instructional money and time to get legal again.

Currency is one thing; regaining and maintaining proficiency is a different and more expensive challenge. Currency speaks to minimum requirements to fly solo, to fly passengers, to fly at night, and to fly on an IFR flight plan. Proficiency implies personal standards of skill and safety applied individually to various phases and types of flying. Proficiency at making takeoffs and landings into the wind in good VFR weather does not automatically bestow proficiency at crosswind takeoffs and arrivals on narrow runways, flying in marginal conditions, short- and soft-field operations, or gross-weight takeoffs and climbs.

Flying regularly exposes a pilot to different conditions requiring different skill sets. Regular flying promotes all-around proficiency, just as regular physical exercise promotes all-around good health. Stop exercising and toned muscles grow soft and flabby. Stop flying and skills turn rusty. Confidence falters, which makes it easier to rationalize not going to the airport to fly. It's a tightening spiral — taking a break from flying to take a breather from the expense makes it more difficult to work up the motivation to start flying again.

Going to the gym to lose the weight and regain muscle tone, or taking remedial instruction to polish rusty skills and regain confidence, is more difficult, time consuming, distasteful, and expensive than keeping fit with regular exercise, regular flying.

Renting airplanes can be expensive, but the big checks in aviation are written by aircraft owners, and it's the rare one who has not reacted to an extraordinary expense by considering, if only briefly, cutting back on flying. It's an understandable reaction, but not such a logical one. Cutting back may reduce the total dollars spent over the course of a year, but the hourly costs go up. That's an important consideration because hourly costs are a better indicator of the value of owning than is the annual cost.

Only a portion of the expense of owning and operating an airplane can be attributed directly or indirectly to actual flying time — fuel, oil, landing fees, and engine and propeller overhaul reserves. The bills for fixed costs — insurance, hangar or tie-down, scheduled inspections, calendar-based maintenance and overhauls, paint and interior, avionics and other upgrades, and periodic pilot training and recurrency, among other expenses — come due whether the airplane flies or not. And the more sophisticated the aircraft, the higher the fixed ownership costs.

In one three-and-a-half-year stretch during my partnership in a Piper Twin Comanche, we spent about $100,000 on the airplane, not including acquisition costs or fuel. Direct costs during that time period amounted to about 20 percent of the fixed costs. Even if I had begun to buckle under the pressure of meeting my portion of that $100,000 nut, it would have been foolish to stop flying to save 20 cents on the dollar. If we had flown less the hourly cost — the total of all direct, indirect, and fixed costs divided by the number of hours flown — would have been higher. Flown more, and the hourly cost would have been less.

If I had stopped flying for a time because of the rising cost of fuel on top of rising fixed costs, I would have given up any justification or rationale for owning a piece of the airplane in the first place. How frustrating it would be to get up every morning knowing there was an airplane out at the airport with my name on the registration form that I was not flying.

How much sense does it make to pay the biggest portion of ownership expenses, fixed costs, if you're not reaping any of the benefits of ownership — the ability and freedom to go out to the airport at any time, get in, and go. And that's the best reason yet to keep on flying.