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Where are you in your aviation journey? What are your short-term and long-term aviation goals? Where do you see aviation fitting into your lifestyle? Your answers to these questions can help you determine whether it makes more sense for you to buy your own airplane or to simply keep renting every time you fly.
As a general rule, the more often you fly, the more cost-effective aircraft ownership becomes versus renting. By computing the fixed and variable costs of aircraft ownership per anum, you can determine the break-even point in terms of flight hours you must log, in order to gauge cost-effectiveness.
Generally speaking, the key determining factor as to whether you should buy or rent really boils down to reflecting upon where aviation fits into your priorities in life. Priorities aside, if you are strictly looking to see whether it is cheaper to buy your own airplane or to rent, then it may depend on factors both in your control and beyond your control. On that note, let’s take a look and assess whether renting or owning is right for you.
How often do you plan to fly?
If you plan to fly only occasionally, then it may make more sense to rent than to buy an airplane. Otherwise, you will be spending money and not be building any flight hours to show for it:
|‣ Hangar or tie-down fees will need to be paid every month, as you need to keep your airplane parked somewhere!|
|‣ Monthly payments will still be due every month, if you financed your airplane.|
|‣ Insurance premiums still need to be paid.|
|‣ Annual inspections will still be due, regardless of how much or how little the aircraft has been flown.|
Do you know what happens to idle aircraft?
If you plan on keeping your airplane parked for extended periods of time in between flights, you will need to be mindful of the following:
|‣ Your airplane’s battery’s charge will slowly become depleted, requiring a jump start or a new battery.|
|‣ Your airplane’s tire pressure will slowly become depleted as well.|
|‣ Unless you keep your airplane properly covered, insects and / or birds could eventually creep into the engine cowling, exhaust pipe, or pitot tube.|
|‣ The fluids in your airplane can gradually become stale, such as the fuel, engine oil, and brake fluid.|
|‣ Keeping your airplane idle for extended periods of time may still require you to occasionally fire up the engine.|
Running the engine of your airplane and taking it out for a flight every so often can inhibit these types of issues from creeping up on you.
Therefore, if you own an airplane but don’t fly it often enough, then certain maintenance costs will inevitably creep up on you, unawares.
How many types of airplanes do you want to fly?
When starting out with your initial pilot training, you will most likely be flying one single type, make, and model of aircraft exclusively. For example, this might be a Cessna 172 or a member of the Piper Cherokee family. (Interested in learning what planes you can fly with a private pilot license?)
If you are keen on exploring different types of aircraft, then buying your own airplane pretty much locks you into flying only that one aircraft make and model. If you spent all that money to invest in an airplane, then you obviously will be flying that airplane, exclusively.
That’s not to say that you can’t or won’t fly other airplanes. But if you invested in the purchase of an airplane, chances are, you will only be flying that airplane exclusively, in order to get your money’s worth out of it.
If you are paying hundreds of dollars per month on an aircraft loan, tie-down or hanger expenses, and all the other maintenance costs associated with your airplane, then why would you spend the extra money to rent another aircraft, while you let your own aircraft just sit idle, unused?
If you are settled on flying one type of airplane exclusively, then aircraft ownership can be justified. If you plan to fly a variety of different airplanes, then you are better off renting them.
Obviously, if you can afford to buy multiple airplanes, that is a whole other story… And it also precludes the fact that you can always sell your current airplane and buy a new one or trade up, if you want to try flying something new and different.
Do you plan to fly as a hobby or as a career?
Goal-setting plays a major factor in deciding whether you should rent or own your own airplane.
Whether your long-term goal is to fly as a career or strictly as a hobby, different factors will weigh into your decision.
Flying with the intention of getting your commercial license means that you will need to fly more frequently in order to gain proficiency. That being the case, the more often you fly, the cheaper it is to own than to rent, on a per-hourly basis. This is especially true when flying under FAR Part 141, in which case you must fly often in order to meet your flight training curriculum goals.
Owning your own aircraft also means that you will have a dedicated plane to fly; you don’t have to worry about aircraft availability. It is available to you anytime you wish to train.
But what if you plan to fly different aircraft throughout different stages of your pilot training?
For example, once you have earned your private and instrument rating, what if you want to get your multi-engine rating? In that case, you would need to plan ahead to sell your single-engine aircraft and trade-up for a multi-engine.
As long as you maintain your aircraft in airworthy condition, you can always buy and sell aircraft, depending on where you are in your aviation journey.
On the other hand, if you only plan to fly as a hobby, then you may not have as much of a demand for a dedicated aircraft as you would if you were planning to fly as a career. In this case, it may make more sense to rent an aircraft. That is, unless you plan to fly several hours per month, and tens or hundreds of hours per year as a private pilot, for non-commercial purposes.
Do you plan to fly for your own business?
Once you get your commercial license, if you want to fly for your own business, then it would make sense for you to own your own aircraft (in your business’ name), strictly from a cost-of-ownership perspective.
If you plan to fly over 100 hours per year, then on a per-hourly basis, it would be more cost-effective to own than to rent. Not to mention, your business would also benefit from the tax writeoffs that you are entitled to: The operating expenses of your airplane, including fuel and maintenance, are all deductible expenses.
(Disclaimer: This is not legal tax advice. This is merely general information. Please consult a licensed accountant for more information regarding the tax implications of owning versus renting an airplane.)
Can you afford your aircraft maintenance costs?
Owning your own airplane doesn’t mean you get to fly “for free”. On the contrary, owning your own airplane opens up a whole can of worms and is a hefty financial commitment.
Whereas renting absolves you of any responsibility toward your aircraft’s operating expenses, including fuel, in many cases where the hourly rental fee includes fuel, aircraft ownership requires you to be extremely diligent when it comes to the financial outlays involved.
You really have to be well versed in terms of:
|‣ The legal requirements for maintaining your aircraft in an airworthy condition, and the maintenance cost involved in maintaining airworthiness|
|‣ The routine maintenance that is required|
|‣ The cost of fuel|
|‣ The periodic inspections that are required|
|‣ Insurance requirements|
|‣ Hangar / tie-down fees|
|‣ Unexpected maintenance and repair costs that you might incur|
Some maintenance costs are fixed, predictable, and routine. Some are variable unexpected. The trick is to calculate and to set aside a maintenance budget. You will want to anticipate and be ready for any unexpected repair costs. Otherwise, you could end up “grounded” until you can afford to pay for maintenance and repairs.
How much can you afford on aviation per month?
Given that aircraft rental fees are a fixed rate per hour, it is easy to calculate how much you can afford to fly per month if you were to rent. If your budget is $600 per month, and it costs you $150 per hour to rent an airplane, that means you can only fly for four hours per month. If your budget is $3000 per month, and it costs you $250 per hour to rent an airplane, that means you can afford to fly a maximum of 12 hours per month.
On the other hand, owning an airplane has a set of fixed as well as variable monthly costs.
On a monthly basis, aircraft ownership requires the following fixed costs:
- Loan payments on the aircraft (if financed)
- Aircraft insurance premiums
- Hangar / tie-down fees
All other costs are variable and require you to set aside money for fuel as well as for planned as well as unplanned maintenance. While in theory, you can fly without spending any money on maintenance, during any given month, it pays to set aside money every month into a fund that you can draw from, anytime you do need maintenance. Some months, you may not need to spend any money on maintenance. Other months, you may need to shell out a few hundred or a few thousand.
Again, it merits being said that owning your own airplane does not equate to being able to fly for “free”. It costs money to own, park, maintain, and operate an airplane, and requires you to be meticulous with your budgeting. Failure to plan and budget for your expenses can lead to compromises in safety, a lapse in airworthiness, and your aircraft remaining grounded.
What are the benefits of renting an airplane?
Simply put, renting an airplane absolves you of any liability or responsibility for aircraft maintenance. As pilot-in-command of your aircraft, you are simply responsible for bringing the aircraft back in the same airworthy condition that you had borrowed it in.
In many cases, you don’t even have to pay for fuel. You only pay for the time that the engine is running on the aircraft… as measured by the tachometer… known in aviation circles as the “tach time”.
If you don’t like the plane that you are flying, you can always switch to another one.
If you want to try flying a different airplane, you can always switch to another one.
You are not bound to one specific airplane.
What are the limitations of renting an airplane?
When it comes to renting an airplane, you absolve yourself of the financial burden of maintaining the aircraft. However, you are limited in other ways:
|‣ You cannot customize the airplane to your liking. You can’t change any of the instrumentation, you can’t change the interior colors, the seats, or any of the amenities. It is not your airplane, and therefore you cannot personalize it.|
|‣ You cannot just fly it whenever you want. You have to reserve it in advance.|
|‣ You have to return the airplane back at the end of your scheduled block of time. You cannot just simply decide to extend your trip and keep the airplane longer, as there may be another pilot who has rented the airplane after you.|
What are the benefits of owning an airplane?
With aircraft ownership, you have the ultimate freedom to fly whenever you want, wherever you want. You aren’t sharing the aircraft with anyone else.
|‣ You don’t need to book the airplane in advance. If you feel like flying it, you can fly it.|
|‣ You are free to customize your aircraft however you see fit.|
|‣ If you don’t like the paint color, you can change it.|
|‣ If you want to swap out your cushion seats for leather, you can change it.|
|‣ If you want to add or upgrade certain avionics within the aircraft, it is entirely up to you, at your discretion.|
What are the liabilities of owning an airplane?
When it comes to rentals, if the airplane needs an oil change, that’s somebody else’s problem. If the airplane needs new brake pads or more braking fluid, that’s somebody else’s problem. If the engine isn’t running smoothly, that’s not your problem. It’s somebody else’s problem.
This is not the case when you own your own airplane. Everything related to the legalities, operations, parking, maintenance, and operation of the airplane becomes your problem. If something breaks in the airplane, it is your responsibility to fix it, out of your own pocket. If the aircraft fails to meet legal airworthiness requirements, it is your responsibility to rectify it.
You are not paying a flat hourly rate for your airplane. You are paying all fixed and variable, planned as well as unexpected costs to maintain the airplane.
The total costs of ownership may very well amount to a costly and foreboding money pit, for those who cannot afford to or for those who do not intend to fly very often.
Once you have made the decision to purchase an airplane, you are essentially committed to that airplane. You most likely would not go out and rent other airplanes when you have your very own airplane to fly (unless you have the budget to do so).
If you buy a Cessna 172, it might not make sense for you to then go out and rent a Mooney the next day. That would defeat the purpose for which you bought the Cessna if you wanted an airplane that you could fly whenever you want!
How much do used airplanes cost?
The average 4-seater single-engine airplane can be bought used, on the market, for less than $100,000.
If you are looking for a budget trainer aircraft to call your own, then you will have no trouble finding many older-model Cessna or Piper single-engine aircraft available for sale on the market for $20,000 to $40,000. That is surprisingly comparable in cost to buying a car! If you have the cash available to buy an airplane outright, then this can result in substantial savings in terms of monthly ownerships costs. Not only that, but it will significantly reduce your average cost per hour. This can weigh heavily in terms of doing a cost comparison between renting versus buying an airplane. Though these airplanes can be anywhere from 30 to 60 years old, they can be surprisingly durable and built to last. Meticulously maintained and refurbished to meet or exceed federally mandated airworthiness standards, you can do well to purchase a used airplane.
Buying a used airplane essentially affords you the ability to fly the same basic trainer aircraft that you would have used during your initial pilot training. In fact, many student pilots will often even choose to buy an airplane, to do their initial pilot training, in order to reduce the overall costs. But this generally works if you plan to schedule your training flights with your instructor frequently – on the order of multiple times a week.
Used airplanes typically will come with the traditional six-pack panel instrumentation and could come with a hybrid of analog as well as electronic navigation equipment.
Used multi-engine and jet planes can be cost-prohibitive to purchase, at a price tag of upwards of $1,000,000… That is unless you plan to fly them commercially and a viable business model to cover their operating expenses and loan payments.
How much do new airplanes cost?
Newer single-engine aircraft, such as the Cessna 172, built within the past few years, on the other hand, will cost significantly more, in the neighborhood of $300,000 to $400,000. This is more comparable to buying a house and will this require you to incur a hefty monthly loan payment. This can skew your cost-benefit analysis in favor of renting. That is, unless you plan to fly a LOT of hours.
Costs aside, newer airplanes will typically be full glass-panel, come equipped with autopilot capability, and augmented by other advanced avionics and safety features.
Newer airplanes will incorporate all the latest advancements in aviation technology, but they will indeed come at a hefty cost.
Multi-engine propeller or jet aircraft will be even more expensive, costing in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars, to purchase. Purchasing these types of aircraft new only makes sense if you have a viable business model to sustain the loan payments and the operating expenses of these.
How often should you fly in order to break even?
If you want to know whether it is more cost-effective to rent versus to buy an airplane, you will need to do a bit of homework and gather some data, so that you can do a proper cost-benefit analysis.
This section below can be used as a guide to help you do the math and calculate the cost of aircraft ownership, as a function of cost-per-flight-hour:
First, let’s calculate your fixed costs. These are expenses that you must pay for, every month, regardless of how much or how little you fly. In other words, even if you leave your airplane parked for one full month and don’t fly it, you will still be required to pay these expenses:
Monthly Tie Down / Hanger Fees:
You will need to determine the monthly costs to park the airplane at an airplane. You obviously cannot keep it parked in your driveway! You will need to pay a monthly tie-down or hanger fee. Hangars are more expensive than tie-downs, so you will want to contact your local FBO to find out how much they charge for each option.
Input total monthly tie-down / hanger fees here: __________
Monthly Aircraft Loan Payments
Unless you have purchased your airplane outright in cash, you will most likely have to pay monthly installment payments toward the loan that you will have financed, for the aircraft. So you will be paying principal and interest on the loan until it is paid off in full.
Input monthly aircraft loan payments: __________
Aircraft Insurance Costs
You will be required to carry aircraft owners’ insurance. Just like the insurance you pay on your car, the insurance on your airplane covers any type of damage to the airplane itself or to other property or persons.
Input aircraft insurance costs here (If paid annually, divide by 12): __________
Annual Inspection Fees
The FAA requires that all aircraft must undergo an annual inspection. That means that every 12 calendar months, your airplane must be inspected by an FAA-authorized certified inspection mechanic. They will inspect and perform diagnostics on your aircraft’s airframe, avionics, and engine, to ensure it meets the FAA’s airworthiness certification standards for safe flight.
Any issues that are found must be addressed, be they repairs or other alterations, before your aircraft can pass the inspection, be certified for airworthiness, and be flown again.
Input annual inspection fees here, divided by 12: __________
Add up all of the above to calculate your Total Fixed Costs Per Month: __________
Next, you will need to determine the variable costs you anticipate you will incur for your airplane. Because these costs are variable, it is not possible to determine when you will need them or how much you will need to spend. For this reason, it is imperative that you set aside a reserve fund for each of the following categories, that you can draw upon as you need them.
If you choose not to put money into a reserve fund, then you may be hit with unexpected expenses that you are unprepared for, which can result in your airplane being grounded, until you can afford to pay for them.
Total Number Of Flight Hours Per Year:
Before we can calculate the variable costs, you will need to input the total number of hours you expect to fly in one year, here: __________
Total Number Of Engines / Propellers:
Before we can calculate the variable costs, you will need to specify how many engines/propellers the airplane has, here: __________
Airplanes need oil changes! You will be responsible for ensuring your aircraft’s engine oil is changed periodically, as recommended by the manufacturer.
‣ Cost of One Oil Change Per Engine: __________
‣ Total Number of Flight Hours In Between Oil Changes: __________
‣ Divide the Total # of Hours Flown Per Year by the Total Number of Hours In Between Oil Changes. This will determine the total number of oil changes your airplane will need, per year: __________
‣ Multiply the Total Number of Oil Changes Per Year x Cost Of One Oil Change x The Total # of Engines.
‣ Divide this number by the Total Number of Hours Flown Per Year.
‣ Input the resulting value here: __________
‣ This will be the reserve cost for oil changes, per hour. This means, that for every hour you fly, you should plan to set aside this amount in a reserve fund, for oil changes.
Depending on your aircraft/engine manufacturer, your engine may be recommended or required to be overhauled at intervals of a certain number of flight hours.
‣ Input the Time Before Overhaul (TBO) of the Engine: __________ (Enter total # of hours in between engine overhauls)
‣ Input the Total Cost To Overhaul The Engine: __________
‣ Divide the Total Cost To Overhaul The Engine by the TBO. Multiply this by the total number of engines your airplane has. Input the result here.
‣ This will be your engine overhaul reserve cost, per hour, per engine: __________
Depending on your aircraft manufacturer, your propeller may be recommended or required to be overhauled at intervals of a certain number of flight hours.
‣ Input the Time Before Overhaul (TBO) of the Propeller: __________ (Enter total # of hours in between propeller overhauls)
‣ Input the Total Cost To Overhaul The Propeller: __________
Divide the Total Cost To Overhaul The Propeller by the TBO. Multiply this by the total number of propellers your airplane has. Input the result here.
‣ This will be your engine overhaul reserve cost, per hour, per engine: __________
Apart from oil changes, engine overhauls, and propeller overhauls, you have to be ready to anticipate any type of unexpected maintenance issue that may arise. It could be anything from a failed instrument to a flat tire. Or it could even be an avionics upgrade or a vanity feature for comfort and style. You will need to set aside a reserve fund for any other general maintenance or upgrades you wish to perform on your aircraft. Here are a few recommended categories, but you can create your own fund categories as appropriate, based on your personal needs.
These are the amounts you will set aside in a reserve fund, for each hour that you fly, for any unexpected or unplanned maintenance:
‣ Airframe: __________
‣ Avionics: __________
‣ General / Misc / Other: __________
Add these together, to calculate your Total General Maintenance Reserved Cost Per Hour: __________
When you own your own airplane, you are paying for your own fuel! Therefore, you obviously need to calculate how much you will spend on fuel, based on how much you will fly:
‣ Fuel Cost Per Gallon: __________
‣ Gallons Per Hour of Fuel Burn: __________
‣ Multiply The Total Number Of Hours You Will Fly Per Year x The Total Number of Gallons Per Hour Of Fuel Burn, and input the answer here.
‣ This will be your total costs for fuel, per year: __________
Now, there are two ways to calculate your total expenses:
- “Wet” Costs – This is the cost including fuel (because fuel is “wet”)
- “Dry” Costs – This is the cost excluding fuel
Taking the values from above:
‣ Add the Oil Reserve Cost Per Hour + Engine Overhaul Reserve Cost Per Hour + Propeller Reserve Cost Per Hour + General Maintenance Reserve Cost Per Hour together.
‣ Take this value and multiply it by the total number of hours you intend to fly in one year, to get your Total Reserve Costs Per Year.
‣ Now add to this your Total Costs For Fuel Per Year.
‣ Multiply Your Total Fixed Costs Per Month x 12, to get your Total Fixed Costs Per Year.
‣ Now add your Total Fixed Costs Per Year + Total Reserve Coss Per Year.
‣ This is Your Total “Dry” Cost Per Year.
‣ Now add Your Total Fuel Cost Per Year to the Total “Dry” Cost Per Year.
‣ This is Your Total “Wet” Cost Per Year.
Houly Cost Of Flying
‣ Take your Total Dry Cost Per Year and divide it by the Total Number Of Hours You Intend To Fly Per Year.
‣ This is Your Total Dry Cost Per Hour.
‣ Take Your Total Wet Cost Per Year and divide it by the Total Number Of Hours You Intend To Fly Per Year.
‣ This is Your Total “Wet” Cost Per Hour.
Now that you have done the math, you can do the comparison: Is your total wet / dry cost per hour cheaper or more expensive than the cost to rent the same aircraft per hour at your local FBO?
If you would prefer to do your computations in tabular format, see the next section below.
Play with the numbers to see how many hours you would have to fly per year in order to break even. Therein lies your answer!
Do The Math!
For your convenience, you can fill out the data into the tables below, and calculate your hourly ownership cost for your aircraft. It is up to you to do the research and plug in the numbers for your own specific aircraft, and your own flying habits.
But for the purposes of illustrating how to use the this chart, we have filled in some sample numbers for you in the table below:
|Flight Hour Inputs||Hours|
|Flight Hours Per Year||100|
|Flight Hours Between Oil Changes||50|
|Flight Hours Between Engine Overhauls||2000|
|Flight Hours Between Propeller Overhauls||2000|
|Number of Engines||1|
|Fixed Costs||Cost Per Month|
|Monthly Tie-Down / Hangar Fees||$150 – Tie-Down / $500 – Hanger|
|Aircraft Loan Payment||$300 – For a $40,000 – 20 Year Loan|
|Aircraft Insurance Costs||$150 (Assumes a premium of $1800 per year)|
|Annual Inspection||$125 (Assumes $1500 fee for the inspection)|
|Total Fixed Costs Per Month||$725 Per Month|
|Total Fixed Costs Per Hour||725 x 12 / 100 = $87 Per Hour|
|Oil Change Variable Cost Calculator||Cost|
|Cost of One Oil Change (Materials + Labor)||$150|
|Number of Oil Changes Per Year =|
Total Flight Hours Per Year / Total Flight Hours Between Oil Changes x Number of Engines
Total Annual Cost of Oil Changes Per Year =
Number of Oil Changes Per Year x Cost of One Oil Change
|Oil Change Reserve Cost Per Hour = |
Total Annual Cost of Oil Changes Per Year / Total Number of Flight Hours Per Year
|$3 Per Hour|
|Engine Overhaul Variable Cost Calculator||Cost|
|Cost of One Engine Overhaul||$20,000|
|Engine Overhaul Reserve Cost Per Hour =|
Cost of One Engine Overhaul x Number of Engines / Flight Hours Between Engine Overhauls
|$10 Per Hour|
|Propeller Overhaul Variable Cost Calculator||Cost|
|Cost of One Propeller Overhaul||$3,000|
|Propeller Overhaul Reserve Cost Per Hour =|
Cost of One Propeller Overhaul x Number of Propellers / Flight Hours Between Propeller Overhauls
|$1.50 Per Hour|
|General Maintenance Variable Cost Calculator||Cost|
|Airframe Costs Per Year||1000|
|Avionics Costs Per Year||1000|
|General / Miscellaneous / Other Costs Per Year||1000|
|Airframe + Avionics + General Costs Per Year / Total Number of Flight Hours Per Year||(1000 + 1000 + 1000)/100= |
$30 Per Hour
|Fuel Cost Calculator||Cost|
|Fuel Cost Per Gallon||$5/Gallon|
|Fuel Consumption Per Hour||9 Gallons / Hour|
|Fuel Cost Per Year||9 x 100 x 5 = $4,500|
|Fuel Cost Per Hour||$45 Per Hour|
Renting vs Flying: What Is The Verdict?
Using the example above, a typical older model single-engine airplane flown for 100 hours per year would roughly cost $176.50 per hour. ($87 + $3 + 10 + $1.50 + 30 + $45 = $176.50.)
How does this compare to renting the same airplane from your local FBO?
Some of these are fixed costs, and some of these are variable costs. As for the variable costs, you are not necessarily incurring them every time you fly. But it would behoove you to set aside these variable reserve costs every time you fly, so that you are prepared for when you will actually need to spend this money.