Proper support keeps older aircraft flying

 - October 13, 2010, 7:13 AM

The plunging values of certain models of older business jets has rekindled a timeless debate: when is a jet too old to fly? “A rule of thumb is when the aircraft is somewhere around age 25 to 30 years,” said Conklin & de Decker’s David Wyndham. “At that point costs are really going to be increasing and it will be harder to get the spare parts and the maintenance expertise” for aircraft of that vintage.

While this may be a rule of thumb, it is not an absolute, however. For West Star Aviation’s Dave Krogman, the general manager of the company’s Grand Junction, Colo. facility, “It is more about the pedigree of the airplane.

“How well has it been maintained throughout its life? If it has been well taken care of, then the cost will not be that great. If, on the other hand, corners have been cut and things have been skipped, you could have some very serious and expensive maintenance,” Krogman said.

Wyndham sees other market and manufacturing factors influencing the answer. “What really affects [maintenance availability] is the popularity of the aircraft. There are hundreds of Lear 35s still out there, so if you have one, you can still get really good support for it. But if you have a 25-year-old aircraft and there are only 20 or 30 left in the world, it is going to be a lot tougher to find support.” In general, he said, “the older the aircraft, the smaller the production run, the more difficult it is to maintain the aircraft.”

However, long production runs do not necessarily guarantee hassle-free maintenance, Wyndham warned. “A manufacturer may have built more than a thousand of an aircraft model, but fifty units into the production run, it changed the pressurization valve, or switched out component suppliers or redesigned a component.”

Both Wyndham and Krogman agree that the plunging values of certain aircraft have skewed some customer expectations when it comes to the cost of maintenance relative to the value of their aircraft. “You can buy an older Learjet 24 or King Air 90 for a couple of hundred thousand dollars,” Wyndham said. The prices of some more contemporary models have fallen precipitously over the last two years, according to aircraft price tracking service Vref. A 1984 Cessna Citation III that sold for $3 million two years ago is now headed below $1 million and there are numerous other examples of this kind of depreciation.

At the same time, Krogman said, the price of some aircraft maintenance and refurbishment services has actually declined for some items because of new and more efficient methods and price competition. However, he warned that customers who acquire bargain aircraft need to understand that the maintenance requirements of those aircraft have not changed. “An airplane has a cost of maintenance. Sometimes when people buy an airplane inexpensively, they think the maintenance costs will also be low. Well, it is the same airplane so the maintenance costs haven’t changed. It is still capable of the same mission.”

Krogman said the speed of parts supply can be an issue for some older aircraft, but, in general, maintenance providers have become adept at finding airworthy parts. “I have never had an airplane come in here and not been able to find a part,” he said.

Even with falling used aircraft prices, customers continue to upgrade their aircraft, according to Debi Cunningham, West Star’s marketing director. She said upgrades that continue in popularity include winglets for Hawkers and Falcon 2000s, the Dash 4 engine upgrade for Falcon 50s, as well as avionics, on-board entertainment, paint and interior upgrades that are often done in conjunction with major maintenance inspections. While there has been a slight decline in the number of customers pursuing upgrades, Cunningham attributed most of this to the macro economy as opposed to those customers not seeing the value of making aircraft upgrades on older aircraft. “Once the economy is on the upswing, we believe there will be a surge in older aircraft upgrades,” she said. 

Krogman said customers will continue to add upgrades to their aircraft, such as the recent wave of Waas LPV STCs, as long as they remain “the right airplanes for the job.” He cites the Cessna 441 as a good example of an older aircraft still going strong, despite having been out of production since 1986. However, he does acknowledge that “maintenance costs increase as an aircraft ages.”

At some point that crosses a line that just does not make sense, said Wyndham, who noted that the cost of overhauling an engine can exceed the residual value of an aircraft and that parts scarcities for some models can drive owners to “the salvage market.”