This is a topic that comes up from time to time when someone is looking to buy an aircraft. They may not plan on using it enough to justify the cost and may not want to deal with a partner or flying club. Leasing to a flight school may be an option, but there doesn't seem to be much information on the nuts and bolts of how to do it and actually make it work.
Wanted to make this post for pilots and aircraft owners to put questions out there about leasebacks to flight schools, as well as aircraft owners who have leased their aircraft to post what works for them and especially what didn't.
From the keyboard of Jason Hegel (aka “he who must not be named” on the old Red Board), reproduced by permission…
Captain Jason’s Leaseback Advice:
1. Leasebacks are a business, always treat them like one. Never get emotionally attached to a leaseback airplane, it will get abused just like a rental car does, and you don't go seeking those out when you buy a used car, do you? Put leaseback aircraft in corporations, run their books separately, have a separate tax return for the aircraft each year, etc. Talk to your CPA and lawyer, make sure you understand both the legal and tax issues.
2. You can make a lot of money with a leaseback. You can lose a lot of money with a leaseback. Many of the factors of making/losing money are completely outside of your control. If your goal in a leaseback is to have someone else pay for your personal airplane, you probably are not going to be happy with the result. If your goal is to defer the cost of your own flying, get your ratings, and perhaps make some money on the side, you can do well if you pick the right FBO/flight school to do business with.
3. If you leaseback an aircraft to an honest FBO, you have a chance to do well. If you leaseback an aircraft to a crook, you have no chance at all. Get to know with whom you are doing business. Ask around the airport, talk to the other owners, etc. Be careful of any FBO that pushes you to get into this too quickly. The best will be honest and upfront about the risks and will caution you to avoid it if you have doubts. Talk to other owners at the FBO, find out how they have been treated.
4. You must run the numbers from a realistic viewpoint, remember this is a business. Take what you're paid each hour by the FBO and subtract the per hour costs such as fuel and maintenance reserves (if you don’t, that $15,000 engine is going to surprise you). That figure is your actual hourly income (the rest does not exist for this calculation) Take the monthly fixed costs and divide them by that "true" per hour income. That is the number of hours the aircraft must fly each month to break even. The monthly fixed costs must include insurance, tie-down, and the "payment", even if there is no payment on the aircraft. The cash you might pay for an aircraft has value, if you don't include it in the monthly fixed costs, you're letting the FBO use your money for free. So add in what the payment would be if you had one.
5. You're still a renter, you just rent one specific aircraft for a reduced rate, but you're still a renter and must schedule your flights along with everyone else. Do you have the right to bump paying customers? If so, how much notice must you give? If you are inclined to "bump" paying customers for your own flying very often, you're probably a poor leaseback candidate. You'll upset those customers and you'll be hurting your own income stream. Find out about renting other airplanes at the FBO for a discounted rate if your plane is down, or otherwise busy. Everything in a leaseback is negotiable, so ask!
6. The standard leaseback agreement is the basic 80/20 plan. You get 80% of the per hour rental rate, the FBO gets 20%. Out of your 80% you pay fuel, insurance, tie-down, maintenance, and the "payment" for the aircraft (again, this has nothing to do with actually having a bank loan or not, it is the monthly value of the money invested into the airplane). Some FBOs do leasebacks differently, and if you run across one of them, be really sure of what they are offering before you sign on the dotted line.
7. FBOs like leasebacks because it removes all the risk from them. They get 20% of the rental rate, yet do not have to own or maintain a fleet of airplanes (and sometimes they make money off the maintenance). You absorb all that risk. In exchange for that risk, you have the chance to make some money, and you'll be able to fly for about half the price of renting (or less).
8. The best leaseback deals are on aircraft that fly a lot of hours each month. A Cessna 172 that flies 80 hours a month will almost always make money. A Piper Arrow that flies 20 hours a month will almost always lose money. The breakeven point on most single engine airplanes is around 50 hours and the leaseback becomes really worth doing from a profit perspective at 65 hours. I know of a case where a Piper Arrow was leased to a flight school and it flew 60 hours over 8 months. The owner lost a lot of money in insurance and maintenance. I also know of a case where a Cessna 172 was leased to a flight school and it flew an average of 87.2 hours a month over a 12-month period, the owner made a fair amount of money that year.
9. Don’t put a brand new airplane on leaseback, they lose too much value the first few years and are very quickly not new anymore when on a rental line. An example is the 1999 172SP I bought. I paid $124,000 for it with a fresh engine installed. It would cost about $209,000 to buy that plane new, in its current configuration (in 2004). Since even a new plane looks used very quickly on a rental line, I saved $80,000 (or about 1/3 the price) in exchange for having 2,200 hours already on the airframe. Those hours do not affect the rental rate. There is one exception to this rule however, and that is the new 50% bonus tax deduction signed into law by President Bush. If you have a need for a $150,000 tax deduction this year, buying a brand new 172SP for $209,000 does make sense, because of the unusual tax benefits offered by the new law.
10. Only do a leaseback if you can afford to own the airplane without the leaseback. Used aircraft can be expensive the first few months you own them. Don't expect to take anything home the first six months. People who already have money seem to do well with leasebacks. Those who really cannot afford an airplane in the first place seem to do poorly. These are generalizations of course, but there is an old saw that says it takes money to make money.
11. Buy the right aircraft, the right way. You can do everything else right, but if you buy the wrong aircraft or pay too much, you'll lose every time. This doesn't mean pick a Cessna 172 over a Piper Warrior, this means pick the right Cessna 172 or Piper Warrior. Some airplanes just shouldn't be leased back. A Mooney or Bonanza are good examples. Very old airplanes often make poor leasebacks as well. The only airplane older than about 25 years I'd leaseback would be a Cessna 150. You want something reliable with a known history. Avoid the very high time and very low time airplanes. Avoid an airplane that hasn’t flown much recently. An airplane that has had 500 hours put on it in the past 10 years will have a lot of things break when the flight school puts 500 hours on it in 6 months. I’ve seen this happen to others and it happened to me with my 172N.
12. You must sometimes spend money to make money. People want to rent airplanes with nice interiors and good panels. If the per hour rental rate is equal, would you rather fly in a Cessna 172 with ARC radios and no GPS, or a full Garmin panel? The new panel and a new interior might add 20% to the price of the airplane but double your monthly profit.
13. Look over the past two years records of similar airplanes at the FBO you’re looking at doing business with. Not just the total hours flown, but how much has been spent on maintenance and how much total income there was after all costs. There is no more honest way to see what to expect than to look at the real world figures from existing aircraft on the FBOs rental line. Do not leaseback to anyone who won't show you the records on the existing airplanes and introduce you to the other aircraft owners.
14. Think long and hard about why you're doing this. Many people get into leasebacks for all the wrong reasons, make sure you're doing it for the right reasons. A leaseback can make sense for some people, it can be a disaster for others. It generally isn't a good way to go about having someone else pay for your own personal airplane, since it will wear faster and not be cared for as well as if it were your own. In addition, you're limited in what you can do with it, given that you still have to schedule it and can’t take it very far without it costing you a lot in lost income. It can however provide you with your ratings, some money, and some low cost flying if managed well.
15. To sum it up, a leaseback is often used to reduce the cost of flying, sometimes it is used to make money, sometimes it is used as a tax shelter (consult your tax advisor on this one). The months I did a lot of personal flying, I tended to break even, and have lost money a few months, but then if you consider what my flying would have cost otherwise, I came out way ahead. If you can't afford to own regardless of the leaseback income, consider that you're making a serious commitment and while it is very easy to buy a plane, it can be hard to sell one.
For the record, I had three aircraft on leaseback with two different flight schools at Addison. A 1977 Cessna 172N, a 1999 Cessna 172SP, and a 1997 Schweizer 300CB helicopter. I did well with the older 172 and the helicopter, the 172SP mostly broke even, but I did fly it about 100 hours personally without paying a dime, so it wasn’t too bad. I earned my commercial and CFI license in both airplanes and helicopters, flew almost 500 personal hours between all the aircraft, and came out $36,000 ahead at the end of the day. I sold them once I was done flight instructing, and have since bought a Piper Twin Comanche for my personal use. I considered leasing it back, but choose not to because I want it available to fly whenever I want to go, one thing that isn’t possible with a leaseback.
Aircraft owners who lease their aircraft back to flight schools usually do not appreciate the amount of wear and tear that will occur with students flying. Hard landings and bounces are common and introduce a lot of stress on the airframe and landing gear. The damage may not be visually obvious. A bent main gear axle is an example. Students often do not report potential aircraft damage that can be inspected by a mechanic before the next flight. The owner is usually responsible for maintaining the aircraft but if potential damage isn't reported, then the owner would not know to have a mechanic inspect the aircraft. Personally, I would never lease my airplane back to a flight school because I could never be sure that the airplane is airworthy and safe when I want to fly it.