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The 10 Questions You Must Ask Before Purchasing a Private Jet

Avoid purchasing pitfalls by having your aviation broker or advisor answer these 10 questions…

Originally published in the September 2015 Robb Report Private Aviation Sourcebook as “Don’t Hesitate to Ask.”

If you are a first-time buyer of a business aircraft, you should be asking yourself many questions before embarking on the quest to find the perfect plane: How often will I fly and how far? How much will I need to work or sleep en route to my destinations? How much luggage will I need to stow? How tall are my typical passengers and how much luggage will they bring? How long will I stay at each destination? How comfortable am I with the idea of other people chartering my plane? 

Once these questions have been considered, you should seek expert advice on what type of aircraft will best suit your needs. You will also want help negotiating a good price, finding any hidden issues with the aircraft, financing the purchasing, closing the sale, and hiring the personnel who will fly and maintain the plane. 

Buying an aircraft is a complex process, and receiving the right advice can be key to completing it in a satisfying fashion. Members of the Robb Report Private Aviation Advisory Board were therefore asked to weigh in on the top questions you should ask a broker or advisor to determine if he or she is the right person to guide you through the purchase.

1) Who pays your fee?

Begin by asking the broker or advisor about his or her revenue stream. Most brokers are like real estate agents in that they are paid only when a deal closes. While it is normal and expected for a broker to take a fee from a seller for selling his or her aircraft, you may want to hire a broker—and pay a fee—for that person to steer you through the buying process. If your broker is also representing sellers, you should know which possible transactions would carry a conflict. Sometimes brokers take referral fees from other brokers for funneling buyers to a specific listing. Some brokers will receive fees from both the buyer and the seller in a specific deal. This is not illegal, but it may affect the quality of the advice you receive. A reputable broker will disclose these potential conflicts, but you need to ask about them. “We are in an unregulated field,” says Kevin O’Leary, the president and CEO of Jet Advisors. “You need to ask the advisor or broker to sign something that says he’s not making money from someone else in this transaction.” 

“You have to understand the advisor’s position in the market,” says Lee Rohde, the president and CEO of Essex Aviation Group. “I only do acquisitions. You’ll never see me list a plane, and I never take referral fees. Some people buy and sell jets and do take referral fees. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I’d be skeptical that the plane the broker is listing is the best plane for you.”

Walter Kraujalis, the president of AeronomX, says that brokers who both buy and sell should be transparent. “If I’m selling a plane that might be a fit for a buyer, I disclose that conflict. I have to say, “Look, this guy is paying me to get top dollar, and you are paying me to get bottom dollar, and the two shall not meet.’ ”

Some advisors itemize their fees for other possible eventualities. For instance, if after consulting with the advisor you decide to use charter or fractional services instead of buying an aircraft, he or she still needs to be compensated for advising you. You should know going into the process what that fee might be.

2) Do you specialize in a particular type of aircraft or a particular type of ownership option?

Many brokers focus on one type of aircraft or one type of ownership option. Some deal only in fractional shares, some only in helicopters or light jets or large jets. This is not necessarily a negative, unless you decide during the process that you want something other than what the broker is offering. In that case, you might need to hire someone else. Other brokers may not say that they specialize, but they have done deals only with jets from one manufacturer. Ask questions about the breadth of research being brought to the table. 

“We come in with multiple iterations of spreadsheets of all kinds of options in every category and all of the costs associated with them,” says Kraujalis. First, he says, clients look at the spec numbers and pictures of the planes that will meet their travel needs. “Then we go to the airport and touch some of the planes. Then you should charter some of them, see how they feel. Then we talk about the [secondary] marketplace and how many sellers there are and how motivated they might be. It’s a process.”

Not surprisingly, board members suggest retaining someone with knowledge about a wide variety of aircraft and buying options, as well as financing, the legalities of ownership, and working with a management company.

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3)  Who are your references, and can I contact them?

Obvious as this question may be, board members note that first-time buyers rarely ask it. Many new buyers just hire the same advisor or broker who a friend worked with. “If you know someone who has used a broker or consultant, you have to ask specific questions about how that broker came up with information,” says Kraujalis. “How did he find specific aircraft? How diligent was he during the deal? You can’t just ask if he was a nice guy.” 

According to O’Leary, you should ask how many transactions a broker has completed involving specific categories of aircraft, and how the broker documents what he or she has learned from those transactions. “[A broker or advisor] will tell you that a certain jet is amazing,” says O’Leary. “Well, how do they know that? How do they access written information on past deals and past issues with different jets? You can go years between deals on similar jets. It’s like attorneys filing case law: You want them to be able to go to a written resource of past deals and past research to back up their opinions.”

4) Do I really need to own an aircraft? 

Brokers often quote this rule of thumb: If you fly more than 200—or 300 or 400, depending on the broker—hours a year, you are a good candidate to own a plane; if you fly fewer hours, you should stick with charter or fractional ownership. But according to James Butler, the CEO of Shaircraft Solutions, that rule is too simplistic; it does not take into account the myriad factors that should be considered. 

“Think about whether you really want to manage an aircraft, hire and manage a chief pilot and crew, and deal with the fact that the aircraft is sometimes going to be down for maintenance,” he says. He also stresses that airplanes are not liquid assets. It can take more than a year to sell an airplane, and models can lose value according to market fluctuations over which owners have no control.

O’Leary agrees that factors other than hours flown should be taken into account. “An airplane is supposed to make your life easier,” he says, “not more complicated.”

Many of Kraujalis’s clients consider options other than ownership, using charter, fractional shares, or jet cards so that they travel in an aircraft that suits each trip. “If what you want is access to private flight, there are so many options to go after without buying a whole plane,” he says. 

A good candidate for jet ownership, says O’Leary, is someone who can save enough time with that aircraft to offset the cost. “We tell clients that in some cases, owning a plane can save you 21 days of travel,” he explains. “If in that time you can do another deal or significant work that equals the cost of the plane, then you should look hard at it. If all that extra work doesn’t offset the cost of the aircraft, then you should wonder if it’s the right purchase.”

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5)  Which aircraft features are worth a premium price? 

Ideally you will have a lot of experience with private aviation before beginning the purchasing process. This will enable you to detail what you like and dislike about various types of aircraft. “I do ask people what they like about different planes, but it’s more important to find out what they can’t stand and don’t want to put up with,” says Rohde. He cites one client who hates trenched floors. He prefers to fly in jets with flat floors. Another client, an avid golfer, needs lots of baggage space to stow his golf bags as well as his luggage. A third client is 6 foot 6 and insists on flying in aircraft with club seating because otherwise he feels squashed. Such demands may require larger aircraft than the clients originally envisioned. 

“I hear people say, ‘I’m 6 foot 1, and I hate to duck.’ Fair enough, but are you willing to pay an extra 30 percent for a stand-up cabin? Do you hate ducking that much?” asks O’Leary. 

A golfer who travels with family may have to ship the bags and clubs to the destination. Someone who travels coast to coast with large groups of passengers and lots of luggage may have to put up with a fuel stop. An aviation advisor should tell you when your wish list is counter to your financial interests or is setting you up for frustration. 

O’Leary notes that the advisor should also be able to point out features that, while attractive to you personally, are not valued as highly by the market and therefore will not support the aircraft’s residual value should you choose to sell it at some future time.

6) Should I consider a pre-owned aircraft instead of a new one?

Some buyers feel that purchasing a jet is like purchasing a car: Of course you want a new one. But an aviation advisor should ask buyers to look at all options, including older aircraft. A pre-owned jet can cost less than half the price of a new one. Furthermore, the aggressive depreciation of value has already taken place with the pre-owned aircraft. It may need interior refurbishing and require new avionics. Neither is a minor investment, but the total cost of the aircraft and the upgrades usually will be significantly less than that of a new jet.

Advisory board members also note that safety is seldom an issue with pre-owned jets. They say that, in the United States at least, a 10- or even 20-year-old jet that is well maintained will be no less safe than a new one. 

7) What are the projected resale values of the aircraft you recommend?

“Never buy anything without having an exit strategy,” says Kraujalis. Aircraft in general are very vulnerable to marketplace whims, and a jet model is apt to go out of fashion in part because manufacturers are releasing new iterations every few years that fly a little farther and a little faster than their predecessors. Some models are perennial favorites, but a crash or recall can cause their value to plummet. A good advisor has a handle on past resale values of different jets and can say which ones are most likely to hold their own on the secondary market in three or five years’ time. They know what is in the pipeline from each manufacturer, and they know how the aviation market as a whole cycles through boom and bust times—though, O’Leary adds, like economists, aviation advisors can find it difficult to predict the next financial crisis.

According to Kraujalis, buyers should be aware that seldom do owners make money when they sell their aircraft. “The most common thing is that you lose money,” he says. “The only question is how much.” 

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8) After I buy my aircraft, should I make it available for charter?

Many first-time buyers assume that they can offset the cost of their aircraft by putting it up for charter. Ten or 15 years ago, that was a standard part of a broker’s sales pitch, particularly to clients new to jet ownership. It sounds like a great idea to rent the plane out when you are not using it and then apply those proceeds to the operating costs. But the board members say that chartering the plane benefits charter operators far more than it does the owner. They point out that an aircraft is a depreciating asset, and that additional flight hours push the engines closer to major overhauls. Also, racking up a lot of charter hours may require hiring extra crew or leave you without the plane at crucial times. 

“I have a lot of clients who used to put their planes out for a lot of charter, and they don’t anymore,” says Rohde. “They have realized that the plane is for their use, and they don’t like having it out for three days at a time. Others have very structured schedules, and they are comfortable with a specific charter agreement.”

Butler advises clients to be cautious about promises made by charter companies. “It’s easy to put together a nice brochure and offer up a block program to charter out your airplane, but more charter hours means more expenses for you,” he says. “What kind of guarantee or commitment are they going to come up with to offset the costs?”

9) What kind of inspections should the aircraft undergo before I purchase it?

The pre-buy inspection of a pre-owned aircraft is a formal trip to a maintenance facility to determine if there are any issues that will affect the sale. Advisory board members caution against having the inspection conducted at the same facility where the plane has been repaired in the past. “You may want to fly the plane to an inspection site that will be at or near where you plan to base the aircraft,” says Rohde. “Let the people who are going to be asked to maintain it going forward have a look at it.” This is especially important if you plan to invest in upgrades after the purchase. Having an inspection done at your own facility will enable you to get estimates on specific upgrades before you buy.

Kraujalis says that your broker or advisor should be present during the inspection. “You don’t want them to sit back and wait for the report to come in. You want somebody to be there when they open the plane up.” 

“The general rule is to make the pre-buy as intense as you can,” says O’Leary. “But the market dictates some of this. If the plane is in high demand, you might not be able to require as many inspections.”

10) Can you help me find someone who will manage the aircraft?

Aircraft owners often will have a choice between a larger company and a smaller one. Each can have benefits. The larger company may offer discounted fuel and other perks; at the smaller company, everyone may know you and your plane. “Some people prefer to work with a company that has all the bells and whistles,” says Rohde. “Others want a more personal relationship.” 

Some management companies charge suspiciously low fees up front because they add costs at the back end. “But what will those charges be and when will they come along?” O’Leary asks. A good advisor will help you find a management company with a fee structure that is right for you. He says, “You can make as big a mistake choosing the management company as you do finding the jet.”  

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