Renting Advanced Airplanes: The Problem (Part I of II)

“I’m on a mission,” wrote an iPilot reader, ”there’s a huge problem lurking on the general aviation horizon. That is, a total lack of inventory for the non-owner pilot to (fly) beyond the Cessna 172. Newly certificated pilots can’t move up the ‘food chain’ (unless they want to shell out huge dollars for a new plane of old design)… a big chasm that will stop general aviation’s growth.”

A Complex Dilemma
Our reader has a point. Spend thousands of dollars to earn your private certificate and maybe an instrument rating, and you’ll find you’ve hit the renter’s “glass ceiling” when it comes to airplane capability. It may be that Skyhawks, Cherokees and similar airplanes have all the capability you need for the type of flying you do (see Speed Isn’t Everything: the 95% Rule). But you might be distraught at the (lack of) modern equipment in the commonly available rental aircraft, or worried about the airworthiness of a 10,000-hour airframe that’s seen three decades of instructional use. Maybe you need to fly greater distances on a schedule (i.e., you feel the need for speed), or you’re hoping to fly skittish friends or family members who don’t feel comfortable flying in old, worn airplanes with ‘sticks holding the wings on.’ These are inconveniences, but if you’re trying to build “complex” time toward a professional flying job, you might feel like the deck is stacked against you.

Exploring The Renter’s Universe
Call around and find out what sorts of airplanes are available for rent in your local area. When you’ve exhausted the nearby airports, extend your calling area and make a list of all the airplanes available for rent within about a hundred miles of your home.

Chances are your list will be short. In my immediate area I come up with a number of Cessna 152s and 172s. Typical rental cost for a 172 with very basic instrument-flight avionics runs about $70 per hour in my area. One of the Skyhawks is a 1998 model with low total time and an impressive avionics suite for $90 per hour (almost 30% more). A 182 and a 125-knot Cessna Cardinal are both about sixty miles from my home. Within a 100-mile radius of my particular base I’ve only come up with one retractable gear (RG) airplane available for rent — a Cessna 172RG — and a phenomenal Cirrus SR20.

Explaining The Renter’s Universe
Why is the rental fleet generally limited to trainer-type airplanes?

  1. Everyone starts in training airplanes — well, almost everyone. A flight school on a shoestring budget has to operate equipment that the vast majority of its customers can fly.
  2. There’s a limited demand for more capable airplanes. Renting isn’t cheap — and most renters only take a few “real” cross-country trips a year, if that. The predominant mission profile simply does not call for a complex aircraft.Inside Information: When I ran a rural, three-airplane FBO in the late 1980s we operated two VFR Cessna 152s and an IFR 172. As a general rule, the 152s flew mostly dual during the week and short solos on weekends; the Skyhawk used mainly by instrument students rarely flew during the week, but was scheduled out on a trip nearly every weekend. Dozens of pilots flew the two-seaters but only about one pilot a week got to use the Skyhawk — we actually lost money on the 172.
  3. Rental fees increase faster than performance. More capable airplanes, especially retractable-gear types, cost a lot more to operate than do less complex types. They’re called ‘complex‘ aircraft for a reason. They usually pack more avionics and other gadgets, and have more complicated wiring and plumbing systems to support them. Plus, fuel and oil costs are higher. Then there’s insurance, which is dramatically higher, because of airframe costs, the costs of normal maintenance, the potential for gear-up landings and the generally expensive results of our mishap record (on average, there are about 50 lightplane accidents reported in the U.S. every week). When we add it all up: The 15kt increase that comes with the 172 to 182 upgrade translates to a 12% increase in speed, and a rental fee increase of 35%. And I know they’re renting the airplanes at the lowest margin they can and still stay in business.

Crossing The Great Divide
So these costs drive the advanced, cross-country-capable airplanes from our rental ramps, right? Maybe so. Back when I got my commercial certificate in 1988, I was driving an hour-and-a-half (in not-so-remote Missouri) to rent the nearest retractable-gear airplane, but something about ‘the times‘ has changed. Perhaps the motivation for most ‘recreational‘ pilots has transferred from low and slow local flight to cross-country convenience. People expect more than your average 15 or 20 year-old trainer has to offer. Whatever the reasons, we have the desire. Fortunately, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Next time, we’ll discuss several.