In the two previous issues, I discussed that the foundation of the Aircraft Acquisition Plan is to understand the aviation mission. That understanding leads to identifying the key missions of the aviation function. Those most important missions are what allow you to derive a set of objective evaluation parameters. Those mission-specific parameters can include payload, passenger seats, range, runway performance etc.
Given a set of parameters, you will need to find out which aircraft are capable of meeting those parameters. For example, if you are an Emergency Medical Services (EMS) operator, you may need to carry 2 liter patients plus two attendants. You may also need to lift that load from a 3,000 foot elevation on an 86F (30C) day. You know the capabilities of your current EMS helicopter. Where do you get the information about possible replacement helicopters? What about performance on specific trips such as London City airport to Cairo, Egypt? What about the maximum payload you can depart Eagle, Colorado and make Charlotte, North Carolina non-stop? There is generally available data and specific data calculations.
There are three generally available categories of published sources of information and data. Trade publications, off-the-shelf databases and the manufacturer published data.
Trade Publications. There are a number of excellent publications that publish surveys, list performance reviews/pilot reports, and have new aircraft pricing. These magazines are readily available via subscription. In addition to hard copy, many have electronic copies and some maintain past issues on their website. The cost to receive them is nominal. This is a good first step to get general information. The ones with pilot reports may have more technical information versus general product reviews. These articles may not answer your detailed questions or cover all the aircraft models you are interested in.
Published Databases. There are a number of databases published in the US that can provide a great deal of useful information. They cover four areas: acquisition costs, operating costs, performance and specifications, and specialized data. While trade magazines usually do a good lob of listing new aircraft process, they don't have a lot of information on pre-owned process. Information that is published on acquisition costs relies on sellers or buyers reporting their transactions to the publisher. Not every transaction is reported and there is a time lag in the reporting of a transaction and the ability of a publisher to analyze and publish their data. When markets are changing rapidly, this data has less value than in a stable used market.
Operating cost databases focus on the day-to-day costs of owning and operating aircraft, including taxes and fixed costs such as insurance. Operating cost databases also have limitations. No two operators operate their aircraft in the exact same way. Some operators do much of the routine maintenance in-house while others use a service center. Unscheduled maintenance is just that, unscheduled. There is no way to predict unscheduled maintenance save for using generalities and defining assumptions. Guaranteed hourly maintenance programs may help, but each manufacturer or program seller will use different assumptions and many allow for some variability in charging based on utilization. As they say with automobiles, “your mileage may vary.” These databases can be a valuable tools for comparing relative costs, but aircraft costing is not an exact science!
Performance and specification databases are useful provided that the person using them is knowledgeable about aircraft performance. They go into more detail than many magazine articles and they tend to have standardized formats for each category of aircraft. These generally come in software versions. Unless you buy the flight manuals or subscribe to a database that offers that level of detail, the ability to change the data for your exact mission can be limited. Again, as a relative comparison tool, they can be invaluable.
Costs of the above databases vary from several hundred dollars to over $1,000 for complete sets. They tend to offer a fair amount of detail, are impartial, and given the time involved in gathering each bit of information on your own, a very worthwhile investment. Our company has published a number of these types of databases for over 30 years.
Other specialized databases do exist. They can be for things such as charter listings, aircraft for sale listings, airport databases, and en route winds and temperature statistics. Depending on your mission, they still may not answer the very specific question that you may have.
Manufacturer's Data. The information from the aircraft manufacturer can range from the sales brochures' optimistic, best case information, to very specific performance analyses. Be cautious reading generalized sales information as they may or may not conform to standardized criteria. They may also be out of date. The flight manuals are the best source for specific calculations. Buying them for one-off comparisons can be quite expensive, especially when researching a number of different aircraft models.
Detailed performance questions can be easily answered by the manufacturer. Contacting the manufacturer does inform them of your interest and usually generates sales calls and perhaps a visit form your local aircraft sales person. If you wish to maintain your anonymity, you may wish to order a technical manual through the product support group.
What are the other sources? Consultants can be paid to do all or part of the work in the Aircraft Acquisition Plan. When we do a study for someone, we work closely with both the aviation professionals and well as the end user to make sure all the right questions are asked, and answered. Other operators can be a wealth of "inside" information, as are maintenance facilities and training companies. When asking questions, be specific. Ask a general question, get a general answer. List price is not necessarily selling price, nor does a flat-rate cost for an inspection tell you what to allow for unscheduled and “over and above” maintenance.
When gathering data, keep in mind the following:
What is the reliability of the source?
What assumptions went into the data?
How would specific information apply to your situation?
In general, starting with the publicly available data allows you to develop a short-list of candidate aircraft. If you want an aircraft with 2,800 nautical mile (NM) range, an aircraft with 2,300 NM is probably not going to be your top choice. Next time I’ll get into the analysis of the numbers.