Buying any airplane-never mind a new airplane-is an exercise in fiscal insanity. For the average workaday schmuck, which most of us are, its like buying an extra house that you sleep in twice a month but that you cant really rent because the insurance company wont allow it.
Most of the time, there it sits, a ticking time bomb waiting to detonate and vaporize whats left of your checking account. Some years it requires only modest funds to support, other years it consumes a good portion of the kids college fund contributions.
And so owners look to defray ownership costs with various schemes, ranging from buying right to taking on a partner or joining a flying club and giving up ownership entirely. An attractive combination of the two-clubs and partnerships-may be shaping up as GA enters the new century with fresh designs and what we hope are new ideas.
The notion of fractional ownership-which is quite the rage in bizjet circles-has once again trickled down to the piston set, in the form of companies offering fractional buy-ins for new aircraft. Heres a look at some sample offerings compared to sole ownership and partnerships.
How It Works
Commercial fractional ownership of light aircraft isnt all that new. Various attempts have been made at it before, including a nationwide aircraft rental program that popped up during the 1970s and just as quickly fizzled. Fractionals in small aircraft GA have proven a tough nut to crack.
On the other hand, a successful partnership or club is nothing but fractional ownership by another name. The concept is to toss a pile of money into a pool, buy an airplane and share both the fixed costs and use of the airplane, thus defraying the cost of ownership at the expense of some loss of access.
When partnerships have the right people and the right airplane, they can be a dream, offering 90 percent of the access for half or less of the cost. Clubs are similarly hit-or-miss; good when the group clicks, a disaster when one or two members make life miserable for the rest of the bunch.
The downside of partnerships and clubs is that someone has to do the work: dealing with the bank, overseeing maintenance, tending to scheduling details, greasing the hangar door and so on. When these duties are shared, the fractional arrangement may run like a well-oiled watch. But when only one partner shoulders the load, the watch goes south.
This is where the new fractionals come in. As with a conventional partnership, you own a share of the airplane-either an actual share or leasing/access rights-and along with other partners, you have access and can use the airplane as you please within constraints imposed by the group. But the major departure is that rather than the partners sharing the management, they pay a company to manage the airplane professionally, tending to all the pesky details that make ownership a joy or a nuisance, depending on your point of view.
OurPLANE was founded by Canadians Graham Casson and Mike Huffman who launched the concept in Toronto four years ago, with an eight-member group in a new Cessna 182.
OurPLANE is clearly married to what many in the industry view as a modest resurgence in new light aircraft manufacturing. During a recent interview in nearby Danbury, Connecticut, where Our PLANE has established a fractional set-up with a new Cessna 182, Casson told us the company will purchase any new aircraft the local ownership group is interested in, from a Cessna 182, to a Cirrus SR22 to a Beech Baron, all of which are either already ordered or under consideration by OurPLANE.
The OurPLANE approach is highly structured with what appear to be well-tested models of how many members are required to make a working-and profitable-fractional group. Based on the Toronto experience says Casson and Our PLANEs director of sales, Greg Marlo, the magic number is eight members, although the Toronto group has operated with as many as 12.
So we know that eight is absolutely the right number. With 12 people, we had no access issues at all, Marlo told us.
The magic in allowing uniform access to a single airplane for a group this large is what Casson calls the difference between intention and reality. The typical sole owner has this revelation when confronted with the invoice for a $6000 annual and realizing that the airplane was flown only 40 hours the previous year.
The intent is to use the airplane more often, the reality is that many owners dont have the time to fly much, the wife and family would rather go by car or something else intrudes to reduce flying activity.
Multiply this factor times eight, says Casson, and you end up with about 95 percent access for a group of eight moderately active pilots. Some will obviously fly more than others and OurPLANE has a solution for that.
Each OurPLANE fractional has four levels of ownership access: bronze, silver, gold and platinum. Heres how the numbers work out for a new Cirrus SR20 based in the New York area. Each fractional has one platinum owner, three silver and three gold levels and one bronze level.
As you might imagine, the tiers are graduated in both price and access. The SR20, as specd by OurPLANE, invoices for $282,760, equipped with the Cirrus IFR package that includes a WX-500 Stormscope and a BFGoodrich Skywatch, plus a pair of Garmin 400 series navigators.
A bronze ownership costs $32,900, with a fixed monthly fee of $317 and a $116 per hour cost, wet. A maximum of 25 hours a year is permitted and theres no option to buy more time.
At the silver level, the buy-in is $37,900, $423 a month with up to 50 hours available at $116 per hour. After that, premium price hours can be bought for $146 an hour. Stepping up to gold level, the buy-in is $42,900, the monthly is $529 with 100 hours allowed at $116, with premium hours also available beyond that. A platinum owner pays $47,900 to buy in, $635 a month and has unlimited hours at $116 an hour.
In addition to these charges, theres a $3 per hour non-flown hour charge which is essentially a penalty for booking the airplane but not flying off the booked hours. The maximum non-flown charge is $21 or seven hours a day. The flying you actually do is credited against that, so the non-flown charge is modest. Nonetheless, we dont like this much. Any owner who ponies up monthly charges and a big-dollar buy-in shouldnt be penalized, in our view. He is, after all, an owner.
All new owners are required to complete six hours of ground school and 15 hours of initial flight time in the airplane at a cost of $1399 plus flight time, variable with type of aircraft.
The ownership term for OurPLANE fractionals is five years, after which the shared airplane is sold off at market value and the shareholders divvy up the proceeds, just as a partnership would. They can also expect their share values diminished by depreciation, just as a partnership would. OurPLANE says it guarantees the value of the shares but its fair to point out that the shares are valued according to the market value at the time of sale not at the time of buy-in.
Theoretically, if the airplane appreciates in value-unlikely-the shareholders will enjoy the windfall. OurPLANE marks up the aircraft sale price to shareholders at buy-in and the residual payback also returns a depreciated portion of that mark-up.
Similarly, at any time during the term of the ownership, an OurPLANE shareholder can sell out-again, at market value-to an incoming owner or back to OurPLANE. So although theres bound to be some erosion of capital, the investment is at least somewhat liquid, which we think is a good idea. Although OurPLANE shareholders arent named on the title, theyre protected against the company folding by automatically filing an FAA lien at the time of the buy-in.
If the group decides to hang together at the end of the five-year period, a new airplane can be purchased and the shareholders pony up the additional money to pay for full-price shares on the new aircraft, assuming the old one didnt appreciate enough to pay for a new model, a virtual certainty.
To the Hangar, James
As noted in the promotional material, the OurPLANE concept is better likened to membership in an exclusive country club than a traditional airplane partnership. All of the aircraft management grunt work is handled by OurPLANE, which retains local FBOs and other resources to take care of the details.
All shareholders have to do is schedule, show up and fly. Even hangar pullout and back-in is provided. With warranty coverage for at least the initial period on new aircraft, OurPLANE should have an accurate handle on maintenance costs. In any event, shareholders arent liable for any expenses beyond their monthly fees and flight-time charges.
OurPLANE retains local CFIs to handle recurrent training, which is required twice a year. To encourage that, each shareholder is given two free hours of flight time, a good idea and an advantage OurPLANE has over traditional flying clubs, in addition to offering new, well-equipped aircraft.
Although OurPLANEs Casson assures us that with eight shareholders, the Toronto experience-and other operations in California and Canada-has proven that scheduling isnt an issue, were somewhat skeptical. This depends entirely on the makeup of the OurPLANE local group.
But OurPLANE has an intriguing solution to the access issue, however. At as many of its sites as possible, two aircraft will be available and shareholders in one can use the other through a feature OurPLANE calls PlaneLINK. We were told that a second 182 was on order for Danbury, for example.
Moreover, assuming the same type of aircraft is involved or the shareholder has been checked out in another type, shareholders can schedule use of an OurPLANE aircraft in another city, a real plus.
AirShares Elite, SharePlus
Two other fractionals we looked into are AirShares Elite and SharePlus. AirShares is an Atlanta-based operation, with plans to expand this year into Palwaukee, near Chicago, and in Tampa and Orlando. AirShares has 10 Cirrus SR22s in place with 25 more on order, making it the largest single customer for Cirrus aircraft in the U.S. In some ways, AirShares is the most ambitious of the fractionals, with both a national marketing plan and a strategy to stick with a single type, the SR22.
As with OurPLANE, theres tiered access, a silver, gold and platinum program. Buy-in is $50,000 for a four-year term for a 1/8th share and $96,000 for a quarter share. Monthly payments are $575 a month for silver, $615 a month for gold and $650 a month for platinum access. The buy-in, by the way, is a true share; the owners names appear on the FAA title.
We have found that buyers want to tangibly own the airplane. Its a big thing to them. Its a little too sketchy to have a title chain with no names on it, says AirShares CEO, David Lee.
Each AirShare shareholder is guaranteed 75 hours a year at $55 wet, plus 10 hours for training and, a nice bonus, five hours for Angel Flight operations. Silver access is la carte-you bring your own charts and headset-while platinum access provides the works, including instruction.
Further, says AirShares Lee, each site will have an exclusive facility for flight planning and passenger lounging. Besides the buy-in, you can also buy a lease at $1150 a month per 1/8th share, with hourly costs charged on top of that. Unlike OurPLANE, AirShares doesnt have a non-flown hours charge.
SharePlus, based at Californias Reid-Hillview Airport in the heavily populated and vastly expensive Bay Area, hopes to eventually expand to as many as 20 aircraft. But its intent is to remain closer to its base in California for now.
Alan Elpel, president of SharePlus, which is a sister company of TradeWinds Aviation, an FBO at Reid-Hillview, told us he may consider licensing or franchising the idea elsewhere eventually, but no plans are in place yet.
Like OurPLANE, SharePlus sells a leasing opportunity; the shareholders name doesnt go on the aircraft title. Thus far, SharePlus has two aircraft at Reid-Hillview, both late-model Cessnas. The company offers 1/8th, 1/4 and 1/2 shares in these airplanes and may eventually expand to include Piper and Cirrus.
As a for instance, a 1/8th share in a Skyhawk requires $4500 down plus $350 a month and an annual $1000 fee for insurance and other fixed costs. At present, the aircraft are not hangared. Each shareholder pays a reasonable $28 per hour dry for each hour flown.
SharePlus offers a six-year deal and at the termination, the aircraft is sold and the shareholder can either re-up for another lease period or walk away. A portion of the down payment is returned, based on market value of the aircraft at the time of sale.
With plans for a mixed fleet, Elpel says SharePlus will offer owners interchange rights so that an owner will have a choice of aircraft capability. For just flying around the Bay area, a Skyhawk is perfect, he says, but for a weekend trip with four people, a Saratoga would be a better choice.
This Aint Cheap
Fractionals tout shared ownership as the most affordable way to own a new aircraft and we think theyre right on this count. That said, however, fractionals arent necessarily the most affordable way to own any airplane used for business or personal transportation. Nor are they cheap. Further, referring to the chart on page 18 will show both a large cost spread between partnerships and fractionals and between the two leading fractionals themselves.
Clearly, some money is being left on the table here and we suspect that despite confidence expressed by the fractionals, too little is known about the economics yet to judge whose numbers are right.
As we see it, the equation is driven by two critical questions: how many hours a year you fly and is a factory-new aircraft of utmost importance? A third aspect-the fact that a 15-year-old airplane does what a new one does for a fraction of the cost-exerts relentless economic pressure against buying new.
In general, new aircraft may have marginally more capability than used ones in the same performance category-say better avionics and systems, de-icing, better crashworthiness-but improvements can often be retrofitted to older airframes.
Although you do get the benefit of warranty, thus most maintenance for the initial period of ownership is paid by the factory, the argument that new airplanes are more reliable than old ones is a red herring in our experience. New ones break just as often and sometimes more often, since new designs may take years to declare their weaknesses.
Ah, but new undeniably smells better and theres the intoxicating aura of fresh leather, new radios and tight doors and windows. If new is a must, so be it. We understand the attraction. The claimed costs from OurPLANE show that an ownership position in a new airplane is cheaper than buying one outright as a sole owner.
Considering the SR20 and using OurPLANEs specs, buying it outright will require a capital investment of $282,760. As shown on page 18, if you put down $50,000 and finance the remainder over 10 years, youll have a monthly nut of about $3000, plus insurance and hangarage of perhaps another $400 to $600 a month. Lets further assume $30 per flight hour for gas. Any unforeseen maintenance is out-of-pocket as it occurs.
If you fly the new airplane as a sole owner 100 hours a year, youll spend, in round numbers, $45,528 a year for a five-year total of $227,640.
This total includes neither the initial capital itself nor the lost opportunity of investing it elsewhere, just the real dollar outlay. Nor does it include any maintenance not covered by the factory nor an engine reserve.
If you bought an OurPLANE platinum ownership position, the same 100 hours a year over five years would cost about $95,500, again, not counting the initial investment. The buy-in share retains value that youll get back at resale, something thats also true of owning the aircraft yourself. But if you own, you take both the finance charge hit and full depreciation yourself; you dont share it with eight other owners.
These economics may not be a slam dunk, but its still a compelling savings over owning, nonetheless. When the sale of the share is accounted for, it pencils out to less than the finance charges for a 10-year loan on the same airplane.
Fractionals vs. Partnerships
Fractionals lose some of their luster when compared to a successful aircraft partnership, either in a recent model used airplane or even a new airplane. In this context, successful means two or more partners have been at it for awhile and know they can share an airplane without slitting each others throats.
If a successful four-way partnership bought into the new Cirrus deal described above, each partner would spend about $89,000 over the five-year period, very close to the cost of the fractional with eight pilots flying it but requiring a capital buy-in a quarter the size of OurPLANEs asking.
True, at some point, the warranty would run out and the group would be on the hook for surprise maintenance costs but the majority of these should be covered by the $70/wet we have stipulated in these calculations.
Pros and cons? Four guys flying a single airplane 100 hours a year is a lot of usage and theyll have to get along and keep peace in the partnership, something that doesnt always work. But theyll enjoy complete control of the airplane and can horse trade on equipment and upgrades, something the fractional shareholders cant do. Further, four pilots flying an airplane 400 hours a year may allow more access than eight flying it 600 hours a year.
On the other hand, the fractional guys will have interchange use; if one airplane breaks, the other may be available. The four-way partnership will be out of luck if their airplane crumps the day before one of them has an important trip.
Moreover, the fractional shareholders probably get both better insurance rates and coverage than does the partnership and in the leaseholder arrangement, the shareholders are insulated from internecine squabbles, legal and otherwise. In other words, theres no free lunch here; as always, its a question of pay now or pay later.
Is, as OurPLANE claims, fractional ownership the future of new aircraft buying? We think it may be one future but the trend is barely off the ground and the fact that its been tried before and failed doesnt give us a warm feeling about betting the farm on fractionals.
On the other hand, OurPLANEs and AirShares national program aspirations impress us, as does their nuts-and-bolts approach to the money, scheduling and marketing of the aircraft for each selected city.
We think their numbers generally hold up to scrutiny-even though OurPLANE seems too expensive to us, given the degree of shared costs-and both organizations have a solid feel from this distance. Long-term experience will reveal if their economics make for profitable businesses. The key consideration here is new airplanes, which have always been vastly more expensive than a near-equivalent used model.
If your basis of comparison is a 10- or 20-year-old used model, you may be better off financially in sole ownership and better off yet in a conventional partnership owning a used airplane.
For new airplanes, long-term fractional ownership smoothes out the bumps, eliminating the ugly and expensive surprises. Fractionals promise the opportunity of making ownership a bloodless, dispassionate experience all but devoid of the light-headed emotional rush of buying a new, very expensive thing of any kind all by yourself. Costs can be predicted and budgeted. You pay for what you use but not much more and with a little luck, you get something back later.
All things considered, we think thats a very good thing. In our view, anyone lusting after a new airplane should at least consider the numbers in a fractional program before deciding.