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"Flying On The Side"

Adventurer B

Brian asked me recently if I had been doing much flying outside of Southwest.


As I have mentioned in the past, my daughter is a flight instructor in Phoenix and flies regularly. I flew with her when she was earning her ratings, but now that she is a bona fide instructor, there is no reason to haul a non-paying passenger like me along. She has student loans to pay!


Everything is more expensive today. Private aviation started getting expensive about 30 years ago, and is now beyond the reach of most people. Much of this cost arose out of questionable law suits aimed at the manufacturers of light aircraft. Today, it is estimated that 60% of the price of a new Cessna goes into a “contingency fund” should the manufacturer ever be sued over the life of the aircraft. With a ticket price of just over $200,000, that means, $120,000 of the purchase price goes to attorney fees. That is tough for many people to swallow and is probably the single largest reason more new aircraft aren’t produced.


Because of the high cost associated with new planes, older planes have kept their value very well over time. Still, the number of pilots has fallen off markedly over the past 30 years. In fact, since 1980, the number of rated pilots in this country has declined from over 827,000 to less than 600,000 in 2006. So few are the people who can afford to meet the stringent rating and training criteria--and the stratospheric aircraft rental costs, the FAA has created two new pilot rating categories in an attempt to lower the costs associated with “flying yourself.”


In 2004, the Sport Pilot category was created to allow pilots to fly a new class of planes that only carry two people, only go no faster than 120 mph, and weigh no more than 1,320 lbs, about half the weight of the average car. This aircraft is limited to daytime operation only. An additional rating category termed, Recreational Pilots, further restricts pilots to a certain distance from their home airports but greatly lowers the training costs associated with flight training.


A new pilot going for a traditional Private Pilot’s rating can expect to spend between $10,000 and $20,000 to gain certification. The Light Sport rating is estimated to run $5,000 to $6,000. For a pilot who wishes to work as a commercial pilot, the costs approach that of medical or law school. My daughter started with a Private Pilot rating I paid for when she was still in High School. Since then, her student loans to get her an Instrument rating, a Multi-engine rating, her Certified Flight Instructor Rating (CFI), and her Certified Instrument Flight Instructor Rating (CFII) have run her about $75,000. She will be employable at a commuter airline shortly, after bagging a few more flight hours. But, before she can start class at Southwest Airlines, she will have to earn a 737 Type Rating. That unique requirement means all applicants at SWA that get accepted into our training program are already Captain-rated by the FAA to fly the 737. That rating will run another $7,000-$9,000.


Okay, say you don’t want to be an airline pilot, but rather just a professional who likes to fly on his or her time off. After the basic rating, you either have to rent or buy an airplane. Sadly, not many friends loan out their airplanes to their friends. 


Renting is the most hassle-free method. You can expect to pay between $100 and $140 an hour to rent a small Cessna or Piper. You pay more per hour but you don’t have any of the “boarding” costs associated with ownership. The rental facility takes care of all the maintenance and upkeep issues with the aircraft, along with the considerable storage costs associated with storing and "feeding" the aircraft.

Fuel is usually included in the rental hourly rate. 

For those deadset to buy their own plane, often the best way to go is with multiple partners. Two or three people will buy into a plane and this greatly cuts the maintenance and storage costs. Unlike SWA Boeings that get inspected monthly because they fly so much, every year a light aircraft is required to undergo a “annual inspection” where all aspects of the aircraft are inspected to ensure airworthiness. Sitting is bad for an aircraft, especially if the aircraft is stored outdoors. Hangar costs can run $300 to $700 a month at small general aviation airports


Those who can afford it, undertake the whole cost of an aircraft unto themselves. Many have decided to “live at the airport” at fly-in communities where they store their aircraft at their house, usually in an attached hangar which looks like part of their home. This situation is usually the most cost effective and helps lower cost of ownership as well as lowers the “hassle factor” by keeping the aircraft close for spur of the moment flying. This, in turn, is better for the plane because it sees more frequent use.


So, in my case, I get my fill of aviation flying my passengers around the country. It sure would be nice to own a small plane to go fly with my daughter, but that is really an expensive proposition, especially while she is buying flying ratings so that she can replace me and fly my passengers' kids around someday. I hope to fly with her here before I retire in a decade.


But then there’s always the PowerBall!


(Ray asked us to share this great video about the joys of flying at the greatest airshow in the world, Oshkosh.)