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Wischful Thinking

by Jay Wischkaemper

I was visiting my friend Barry Ballinger the other day. Barry is a VP at a local bank and a pilot. His flying now mainly consists of flying the bank’s hot air balloon when the weather is nice. Not a bad side job to have. The balloon isn’t the only piece of aviation equipment owned by the bank. In recent years, they have grown significantly, and have seen the need for a corporate jet to keep track of their far-flung operations. The plane, and the people who are senior enough to fly it, reside in Dallas, but it frequents the Lubbock airport. I mentioned to Barry that I had seen it the day before. He didn’t even know anyone important was in town.

I then mentioned to him that seeing the plane had caused me to commiserate on the cost of operating something like that. Of course, if you have the money, it doesn’t matter what it costs, but that still doesn’t minimize the cost of operating any jet. Theirs is a rather nice Citation, worth probably $10 million or so. If you consider an opportunity cost of two percent on that amount, you’re talking about $200,000 that the money would earn were it not tied up in an airplane. Add to that a hundred grand for insurance, another hundred for property taxes, another hundred for pilot salaries and hangar rent, and the fixed costs are going to be somewhere on the south side of a half million. If you figure the plane flies 500 hours per year, that’s $1,000 per hour before you’ve even touched a starter button. Throw some jet fuel and maintenance in, and you’re probably talking about two grand an hour. $4,000 or so to fly a couple of people from Dallas to Lubbock? I know their time is valuable, but at that price, it had better be.

Of course, it’s none of my business what they spend, because it isn’t my money, but I do find myself looking at the somewhat less lofty figures of operating a Bellanca trying to figure out how I justify it. As Barry and I were discussing my hypothetical cost figures, he mentioned that when he once owned part of a 182, he started out trying to justify the cost, and after he figured out that he couldn’t, he tried to rationalize it, and when he figured out he couldn’t do that either, he sold it.

I’ve gone through the same exercise numerous times. Realizing that I can neither justify nor rationalize the cost of owning a plane, I’ve just decided to ignore it. Someone asked me once what it cost me to fly the Bellanca. I told them I tried not to think about it. It was too depressing.

One way we do rationalize it is to not think about all the costs. I’m sure that when the big boys get in their Citation, they don’t stop to think about the fixed costs. They don’t see that tax bill, or the bills for pilot training, or the insurance. Somebody else takes care of that. In fact, with professionally flown planes, they don’t even see the fuel bill. The pilots take care of that. The only thing that concerns them is that this is a lot nicer way to travel than having to mingle with the poor folks. But even if they were passively aware of those fixed costs, they probably view it like most of us. You go somewhere and you pay the gas bill and that’s what it costs. Those other costs are simply shoved into the background somewhere.
I’m the same way. If I divided the hours I fly into the total I pay for the plane, it would be obscene. I don’t look at it that way, any more than I look at the cost of operating my car that way. The bean counters will tell you it costs 30 cents a mile or more to operate a car, but do I think about that every time I go somewhere? Of course not. I think about how much the gas will cost.

The bottom line to flying an airplane is that people don’t do what makes sense. They do what feels good. I can’t imagine why anyone would need a Hummer. A Chevy Cavalier will get you there just as fast. In spite of what the advertisements show, I doubt that too many people use their Hummers to roam the backcountry. Very few people who own Hummers have any good, practical reason to do so. Yet there are lots of people driving them. Why? Not because they need them. Not because they’re practical. Certainly not because they’re attractive. It’s because that’s what they want to spend their money on, and they have it to spend. Somehow, driving one of those behemoths makes them feel good, and if they can afford it, there’s nothing wrong with that.

While flying sometimes makes me more productive in my business, I suspect that my bottom line would go up rather than down were the Bellanca not a part of my life. Frankly, I don’t care. If I want to carry practicality and frugality to an extreme, there are lots of things I would do differently. I own an airplane because I want to own an airplane, and because so far I have been blessed with the financial means to afford it. I don’t calculate every year what it cost me per hour. It probably would be depressing. But whatever the cost, there is a satisfaction to saying, “That’s MY plane,” even if only 1/5 of it is mine. And there is value in knowing that because those fixed costs are there every month, when I do want to fly it, I get in it, pay the partnership $25.00 an hour for routine maintenance, and buy the gas. Being number four for takeoff doesn’t worry me nearly as much as it would if I knew the dollar and a half per minute Hobbs was ticking while I’m sitting. If something mechanical is wrong, I know it gets fixed. If I want to fly somewhere and stay a week, I don’t have to worry about tying up a rental plane that isn’t being flown, or paying for a minimum number of hours per day even though I’m not flying. I know my total cost would be less if I rented, but I also know that if I knew I was writing out a check for $100 per hour, I wouldn’t write it. Fixed costs and gas is a lot easier to handle.

I’ve never seen the numbers that prove an airplane to be financially justified. I’ve heard they exist. I’d like to see them. Unfortunately, I never have. But regardless of what they might say, why don’t we just admit the facts. Flying is expensive. I can’t justify it. I can’t even rationalize it. But I want to do it. I like to do it. I’m going to do it. Having that attitude doesn’t make the bills any less, but at least if your attitude is right, it makes paying them a little less painful.

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