As 2014 rolls into the Northeast with a big snow storm, this is as good a time as any to look ahead while waiting for the snow plow. A big part of looking ahead is your aircraft's annual operating budget.
If you operate on a calendar budget, you should have already completed your aircraft operating budget for the year. If this is the last time you look at your budget until the end of the year, you are not taking advantage of the work you have done.
A budget is a best estimate looking forward at what you think expenses will be. As such, you made a number of assumptions regarding things like utilization, fuel costs, etc that factor into those costs. As you advance through the year, you will learn how accurate those assumptions were. Is your budget capped? If you were planning on fuel prices remaining stable, what happens if they increase? Where does the money come from if you exceed your allotted budget amounts?
Maintenance costs will depend on the utilization. What if, having planned on 360 annual hours, which puts the next major inspection into 2015, you end up flying 400? If a major maintenance bill comes due earlier than expected, will you be ready for this? You should be plotting major, know expenses, forward at least two to three years. Things like engine overhauls, paint & interior, major checks, hangar rents, even training and insurance costs are coming on a predictable schedule.
Your budget should be reviewed and updated as the year progresses. Planned versus actual should be a standard metric. If you have a tight budget with little room for overages, you'd better know early if there will be unforeseen issues. As you start seeing variances in your budget, have the explanation ready as to why. No one really knows what the price of fuel will be next month, let alone at the end of the year. When that cost of fuel changes from what you anticipated, note it and any possible explanations if you know of them.
The key thing is to track and report your costs in detail. Then when there are small variances in the budget actuals, you can see them (hopefully) before they become a major event. Save for a significant unscheduled maintenance event, this is doable. Then you need to communicate to those with the money what is going on, and what actions that you recommend. If at 360 hours, the major inspection would be due in January 2015, but flying jumps to 400 annual hours: (1) major expenses in outlying years should already be noted and (2) the inspection costs need to be planned for well in advance. Tracking, reporting and understanding your costs are necessary to avoid financial surprises.
Budgets should be a financial tool that you use to manage the fiscal resources of your operation. It should not be a once and done exercise. Used appropriately, a budget should provide you with operating cost metrics that you can use to measure and manage your aircraft throughout the year.