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Buying an Airplane: Can You Afford It?

A Guide to Aircraft Ownership Costs

By

The Cost of an Airplane

Buying an airplane can definitely be affordable, but it’s not for everyone. Your specific financial situation and how you measure value as it relates to aircraft ownership will determine if you’re ready to take the plunge into aircraft ownership.

The cost of owning an aircraft is multi-faceted and can seem complex at first, but if you research and prepare, you might find that it’s not as overwhelming as you first thought, and might be more affordable then you initially thought. What you don’t want is to be surprised at additional costs uncovered after you purchase an airplane. Here’s the breakdown of what to expect.

The Purchase Price

There’s a rule of thought that says that if you can afford a car, you can afford an airplane. This may be true, but everyone’s financial situation is a little bit different. The general rule is that if you can afford a car/boat/vacation home, chances are you can afford an airplane.

The car analogy comes from a calculation for a small single engine airplane or light sport aircraft in the $50,000 range. Using an aircraft loan calculator such as this one from AOPA, we find that you can expect to pay around $400 per month for a 20-year loan with 6.5 percent interest. Obviously, this is a fluid number, depending on the loan term, interest and how much money you might be able to offer for a down payment.

You can, in fact, purchase a small single-engine aircraft for less than $25,000, but it will probably be very old and in need of lots of updates. Pilots can get a good deal on older aircraft, but usually end up spending a significant amount of money on updates, such as new radios, a GPS system, maintenance and more in order to make it into something they can fly comfortably.

A $400 per month payment is very reasonable for someone that might use the aircraft often, especially if there is added value in it, such as business use, tax credits and time savings. But don’t forget that the actual purchase price is just one factor in the cost equation.

Operating Costs

Aircraft operating costs can be divided into fixed costs and variable costs. Fixed costs are costs that don’t change, such as the loan amount, insurance and hangar rental. Variable costs include fuel, oil and maintenance costs.

When you are determining how much you can afford, you’ll have to include these costs. You can get an estimate of aircraft operating costs on AOPA's website or at conklindd.com.

For a small single-engine fixed-gear aircraft like a Cessna 172, operating costs can be between $100-$200 per flight hour.

Here’s a short list of costs to consider beyond the purchase price of the airplane:

  • Fuel
  • Oil
  • Regular maintenance inspections, such as the required annual inspection, avionics and instrument inspections.
  • Engine overhaul cost
  • Ramp tie-down or hangar fees
  • Insurance
  • Landing fees
  • Aircraft accessories, such as headsets, engine covers, etc.

A small airplane such as a Cessna 172 can cost up to $30 per hour in fuel alone during flight. If you fly 200 hours in a year, it’ll cost $6,000 in fuel alone per year.

Is it Justifiable?

Whether or not you can justify the cost of a private aircraft depends largely on your sense of financial security and your opinion on quality of life.

Many pilots justify their aircraft purchase by factoring in the amount of time saved, the reduction of time spent at airports, and the flexibility to take off whenever they want, wherever they want to go.

There are also many ways to reduce the costs of ownership, such as co-owning, leaseback options, renting the aircraft out to others, or flight instructing if qualified. These all come with advantages and disadvantages, of course, but many pilots find that the costs are much more manageable by implementing one or more of these measures.

Some people can’t fathom spending such a large amount of money on an airplane they’ll fly once in a while. For others, the lifestyle and convenience of owning an airplane becomes very justifiable. It’s a personal opinion and one that, unfortunately, this article cannot solve for you.

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