One of the first questions that occurs to new pilots is this: buy or rent? A lot of people write about this question online and in print, and they mostly try to help you make the decision by opening a spreadsheet to figure out the cost of owning and operating a plane, dividing the cost by the number of hours you’re likely to fly, and then comparing that with rental rates. I took that approach before buying my Warrior.
That approach is completely useless.
When renting doesn’t work
I spent a few months as a renter after my plane was hit by lightning, and the experience reminded me why I don’t rent. Unless you’re willing to book weeks or (more likely) months in advance, you’re not going to be allowed to take a rental airplane away for a whole weekend, much less a whole week. If you are allowed to take a rental plane for that long, and the weather cooperates (remember that you cannot leave a day earlier or come back a day later), you’re usually going to have to pay a minimum fee — say, 3 hours/day — whether the plane flies or not.
That money adds up fast. If I rented a Cessna 172 for CAD 120/hour dry to fly from Ottawa to PEI for a week in the summer (about eight hours’ flying round-trip), my cost before fuel and taxes would be not CAD 960 for eight hours, but CAD 2,520 for 21 hours, even though the plane was tied down for most of that. Add about $300 for fuel, and you’re well over CAD 3,000 total for the trip. Of course, the odds of getting a 172 for a full week in the summer are so small that this is mostly hypothetical.
When renting does work
On the other hand, rental planes are almost always available for two or three hours, even on the weekend. If you want to just fly around the area to take friends up for sightseeing, or work on a rating, or fly with a buddy for a quick lunch at a nearby airport, renting works great, and you’ll save a lot of money over owning.
If one rental plane is down for maintenance, you can just take another one. If the plane makes a funny noise during runup, you can just taxi it back to the hangar and hand the problem over to someone else. If all you want to do is fly a plane the way your friends use their boats, a few hours at a time on nice weekends, then renting is a very low-stress solution.
Making the decision
So, if you’re a new pilot trying to decide whether to buy or rent, ask yourself this: do you want to do nothing but fly around the area on Saturday afternoons, or do you want to go places on overnight trips? If you want to do any non-trivial amount of travelling, even just a couple of family or business trips every year, you can put away your spreadsheet, because owning — either alone, in a partnership, or as part of a fractional ownership program — is really your only choice.
Owning is often expensive, but it does not have to be, especially if (unlike me) you’re willing to share a simple, slow plane with a few partners: 25% of a Cherokee 140 in a 4-way partnership will cost you as little as CAD 10,000 up front (which you’ll get back — less sales tax — when you sell), maybe CAD 2-3,000/year in fixed costs, plus fuel and engine reserve for each hour you fly. It will also, of course, cost you the headaches of ownership, including arranging maintenance, paying unexpected costs, changing oil, cleaning bugs, waxing wings, shovelling snow, finding alternatives when the plane is down for a few months for painting or engine overhaul, taking time off work to go to the shop, etc.
Airplanes aren’t like cars
It’s too bad that renting planes cannot be more like renting cars. Our family gets by with only one vehicle — we live near downtown, and when there’s a conflict and one of us cannot walk or take transit, we use VRTUcar (an extremely inexpensive shared car program — there are two parked a couple of blocks from my house) for in-town travelling, or we rent a car for out-of-town trips. The money we save from not owning a second car covers a huge part of the cost of owning our plane. Go figure.