A friend was recently stung by a wasp. He was doing some yard work and apparently disturbed the wasp who took umbrage at his summer nap being interrupted. The sting hurt and caused several days of uncomfortable swelling. I was joking with him that aircraft operating costs can be like that. They seem small at first compared to the big amount of the aircraft acquisition, but ignoring them can sting and cause you discomfort.
We find this in two areas when we review costs with operators. The first is failing to understand the cyclical nature of maintenance costs. Things like fuel are very stable and predictable. The more you fly the more your annual fuel cost grows. Maintenance tends to come in chunks. Yes, brakes and tires come at a predictable pace, but those inspections and component replacement/overhauls do not. A heavy maintenance inspection that occurs at infrequent intervals can have a high cost.
If you last did a “C Inspection” at a time when you had plenty of cash, then all was OK. But what if that "C" is coming due soon, like maybe this year? You may be cutting back your flight hours to save money but that darn “C” still comes due, on time or on the calendar! You may have been very successful in 2009 at reducing your budget only to have to ask/explain the 50% increase for 2010.
A second sting to non-aviation financial folks is the magnitude of these heavy inspections and overhauls. Reminding them that it took six years and 4,200 hours to get to this cost doesn’t remove the pained look they get when they see the price quotes.
I think a big reason aircraft maintenance costs come as shocks to these folks is their point of reference is the family automobile. Oil changes are $40, a set of tires can run to $400, and then the 100,000 mile check runs to $800. All those numbers are the frame of reference they may use when looking over the aircraft costs. None of those prepare them for the magnitude of a major airframe check or overhaul.
Life Cycle Costing out for at least several years is a help. An even bigger help is the (constant) process of educating non-aviators as to the nature of the costs to own and operate such complex, critical equipment. And yes, if there is a major cost item coming due; provide as much advance notice as you can. Lastly, guaranteed maintenance programs can help with smoothing out these costs – fodder for another article.