So, you have thought about it long enough. You’re tired of taking three days to accomplish what could be done in one. Perhaps you have had enough of long lines and pat downs. Maybe you’ve chartered or flown on a friend’s aircraft a time or two and realized the cost-benefit analysis makes sense. Whatever your reason, you have decided it’s time to purchase your own aircraft. With that big decision made, now comes that task of deciding which aircraft is right for you.
As with most decisions in life, there are tradeoffs, and deciding which aircraft to purchase is no exception. The four main forces acting on an aircraft – thrust, lift, drag and gravity – are the cause of most aircraft acquisition tradeoffs. More thrust means higher speed, but more cost. More lift means shorter runways are accessible, but slower cruise speeds. Larger, heavier aircraft mean more cabin comfort and capability, but need more lift and thrust which, in turn, correlates to more cost.
Acquisition Budget. The most logical place to start is to set the acquisition budget. How much can I afford? It is important to remember that an aircraft is a tool to help facilitate the growth of your business and simplify your life. Letting ego creep into the budget decision can lead to acquiring more aircraft than needed, and can lead to a less than ideal ownership experience.
Operating Costs. Just as important as how much can I afford to acquire the aircraft, is how much can I afford for direct operating cost of the aircraft? Typically, the older the airframe and engines, the higher the direct operating costs. This is due to more maintenance being required on the airframe, as well as the less efficient engines on older aircraft. As aircraft age, particularly beyond ten years, their values decline, but direct operating costs increase. An extreme example of this is in the large cabin Gulfstream G-II market. While this 1970s vintage aircraft can be purchased for nearly give away prices of $400K and below, it will cost upwards of $7,000 per hour to operate.
Cabin. Generally, the larger the cabin, the higher the acquisition and operating costs. Some features of the aircraft cabin to consider:
- Number of Seats. The average passenger load for a business jet trip is approximately 2.5 people. Do you really need 12 seats for that annual trip to Hawaii? You can buy a lot of first class seats to the islands with the millions you will save in purchasing a midsize instead of a large cabin aircraft.
- Cabin Size. Standup cabins are comfortable, but the bigger the cabin, the bigger the direct operating costs.
- Lavatory. Some light aircraft have limited lavatory facilities with a curtain for a barrier or have no lav at all. How long do you plan on being in the air?
- Baggage Volume. Storage space comes at a premium in an aircraft. Do you need the capability to load golf bags or skis? Some mid and light aircraft have baggage compartments loadable only from the interior, while others have larger exterior baggage space in the nose and tail of the aircraft.
Range. Longer range capability means larger aircraft which means higher acquisition and operating costs. What are your common destinations? How many times per year do you travel to these destinations? Do you need to go non-stop or will a stop along the way be acceptable? The 80/20 rule applies to range. Purchase an aircraft that will satisfy 80% of your needs – for all other occasions, you can make a fuel stop, charter a larger aircraft or book a first class ticket for the other 20% of your destinations.
Speed. One of the first questions many aircraft buyers will ask is “how fast does it go?” Most midsize and large cabin aircraft have cruise speeds that are not dramatically different. Light jets will have more variation in speed capabilities. With the average business jet leg being 600 miles, the difference in speed from one model to the next often results in only a few minutes difference in travel time.
Service Ceiling. Most business jets are capable of flying as high or higher than the airlines enabling them to fly over most weather. If considering a turboprop aircraft, know they fly at lower altitudes which will occasionally result in the need to circumvent poor weather.
Runway Performance. It is important to know the runway length at the airports you frequently use. Larger aircraft typically require more runway for takeoff and landing. The lighter the aircraft, the less runway needed. However, often less fuel is loaded on board in order to meet limited runway lengths, which results in fuel stops.
Payload. Most aircraft are not capable of filling the fuel tanks and filling the seats at the same time. While filling the tanks is not required on many flights, it is important to know the limitation of how much an aircraft can carry with full fuel.
One or Two Pilots. Most turboprop aircraft and many newer light jets are certified to be operated with a single pilot. Operating with a single pilot can reduce costs, increase payload capability and open up an extra seat for passengers. Having two pilots can add to the safety of operations due to the reduction in pilot flying work load, more eyes outside the cockpit and redundancy in case of health issues.
There is no one aircraft that will satisfy 100% of a buyer’s needs. Sorting through tradeoffs in performance, features and costs can be daunting, not to mention the complexities of the overall acquisition process. Particularly for first time aircraft buyers, taking a conservative approach to aircraft selection and assessing real needs is wise. Getting professional guidance from an experienced aircraft broker is paramount to making the right aircraft selection, as well as to a successful acquisition.
By Michael Parker © December, 2011. Mr. Parker is vice president aircraft sales at Keystone Aviation, based in Salt Lake City, Utah and has brokered and professionally flown business aircraft for over 14 years.
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