One of the topics I always talk about in my seminars is how to calculate Piper airplane cost of ownership. Many people believe that aviation is a very expensive hobby. And in some cases, it is. But in the grand scheme of things, aviation is not much different than a few of the other pastimes that people partake in. Let’s talk boating. I have been a boater all my life. Boats cost money. In fact, I was looking at new pontoon boats and some retail for well over $100,000. Plus you have fuel burn, extras for the boat, and, if you keep it in a slip at the lake, slip fees. In my neighborhood you can rent a 12-foot by 28- foot slip for a six-month season for around $3,000. That’s $500 a month. And if you have a bigger boat and include electricity and water it’s even more expensive. Compare that to hangar rent, and for many of us, we can fly pretty much year-round. Your flying season might be equal to your boating season (12 months), but for most of us, the flying season is longer than the boating season. Think boats are not a good comparison? Look at buying a new Harley. Sure, you can get one for under $10,000, but the average fully loaded bagger bike is probably closer to $30,000. I can buy a Cessna 172 or Piper Cherokee 140 for that kind of money. And I can still fly year-round.

Watch our members-only Piper Airplane Cost of Ownership Calculator webinar with the author.

How to Calculate Piper Airplane Cost of Ownership Decision: Rent or Buy

What I am getting at is everything costs money. It’s all about what you buy, how much you use it, and what your attitude about the costs is. If you go into aircraft ownership with an open mind and establish some basic criteria, it can be an affordable experience. Education is the key. Know what you are getting into and understand where the costs of ownership are, and you won’t be surprised. Oh, and you won’t feel guilty when someone says something about “how can you afford to own an aircraft?” (Besides, it’s none of their business anyway). In previous columns I have written about whether a person should buy or rent (July 2018 issue). I think ownership starts there. If you do not fly very much, or you really are not in a financial position to buy a Cessna 150 or Cherokee 140, rental is an option. So are flying clubs. The question of rent or buy has plagued the aviation world for years. As pilots, renters, and wannabe owners, there is no question. The answer would be buy, you should always buy, that is the only option! However, if you ask the owner of an aircraft that just went through a catastrophic failure at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars or more, they will probably tell you that renting would be their choice at that specific time.

Ego Needn’t Be a Factor

Don’t ever let the fact that you do not own an aircraft make you feel like less of a pilot! The goal is to fly whenever you can, and if renting or being a member of a flying club is the best way, that is still part of aviation. Without people renting aircraft, we wouldn’t have the general aviation market we have now. But, if you already own a Cessna 150 or Cherokee 140, how do you know when to move up to something larger and faster? Maybe the answer is you shouldn’t, maybe you should rent for that occasional need.

Making the Buying Decision

Buying an aircraft (your first or fifth) is an emotional thing. Emotion is one of the primary things that gets buyers into financial trouble. The excitement of owning ranks up there with buying a new house. Buying any aircraft can be an exciting time. It is also a very big financial commitment. For those reasons (emotional and financial) I think it’s important that buyers plan ahead in the purchase and decide what they can buy and how much they can afford. Basically, I figure there are three parts to figuring the cost to own.

  1. Variable costs are items that change with how much you fly such as fuel burn, repairs, etc.
  2. Fixed costs which stay the same whether you fly or not. Things like hangar rent and insurance.
  3. Cost of money which is the purchase of the aircraft and any interest you lose or pay.

Variable costs are probably the most important of the three. Twin-engine aircraft are a good example to explain this. You can buy a really cheap, complex twin-engine aircraft, and tie it outside and not buy insurance, and you still might not be able to afford to operate the aircraft. Once I had a chance to buy a super cheap Cessna 401, but my mechanic figured it would cost over $50,000 a year to maintain and operate. Ouch.

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of PIPERS magazine. Read the full article including a rent versus buy chart here.