AINsight: 7 Avoidable Mistakes in Acquiring a Bizjet

 - November 13, 2020, 12:09 PM

Acquiring a private jet aircraft is fraught with the potential to make expensive mistakes. Yet, a qualified aviation team can help a purchaser achieve optimal results by avoiding these seven missteps:

Going It Alone

Assembling the right aviation team admittedly entails some cost and initial effort. But most purchasers quickly realize that buying a jet is not like buying a car, real estate, or other assets. Rather, a jet purchase or lease is complex and requires the assistance of aviation experts who excel in the subject matter and interact seamlessly on a deliberate closing schedule. Tax-intensive, cross-border, and novel purchases may require additional expertise beyond the core team members described below.

Aircraft broker. Purchasers buy aircraft solo, and that can work out. However, a purchaser might suffer buyer’s remorse or experience negative outcomes such as unnecessarily incurring taxes on the purchase. A skilled broker focuses on the purchaser’s needs and wants, knows the “market,” identifies the best available aircraft for the purchaser, and negotiates business and other terms with the team.

Consultants and pilots. Various consultants perform visual and record inspections, appraise aircraft, supervise pre-buy inspections, organize flight departments (Part 91-private aircraft operations), provide insights into choosing Part 135 managers (commercial/charter use), and may provide broker services. Pilots may support, perform, or lead on some tasks but must collaborate with the other team members.

Aviation lawyer. Aviation law is challenging, so non-aviation counsel should not act alone in aircraft purchases. Instead, they should hire an experienced aviation legal team that understands and regularly structures acquisitions amid conflicting tax, regulatory, liability, risk management, choice of owner entity, and other complex rules. They must also regularly draft and negotiate aviation-specific agreements and, importantly, have even broader financing expertise than just aircraft loans and leases.

Aviation insurance broker. The aviation insurance market is no place for a generalist broker. Aviation insurance brokers know how to navigate aircraft insurance markets and negotiate complex policy terms.

Escrow agent and FAA counsel. With few exceptions, purchasers and sellers should use escrow agents, comprised of escrow companies and FAA lawyers. These agents hold and disburse funds, collect and file documents at the FAA, register interests and parties on the International Registry, and may issue title insurance. FAA counsel can also offer legal advice, write title opinions, and draft multiple documents.

Not Selecting the Right Aircraft

Despite the unquestionable benefits of owning or leasing a whole jet aircraft, notably during Covid-19, a prospective purchaser should first rule out other workable options to fly privately, such as chartering or buying a fractional share of a jet. After that, a purchaser should concentrate first on the aircraft/user’s “mission” before deciding on which new or used whole aircraft to buy or lease.

Generally, the term “mission” is aviation speak for a purchaser’s effort to identify aircraft that will serve all or at least most of the private travel the purchaser envisions. When completed, the mission profile informs the search by purchasers and their brokers in today’s active market with numerous jet makes and models for sale.

Not Planning for Taxes Before Signing an LOI

Private jets attract the interest of tax authorities at the federal, state, and local levels. Before signing a letter of intent (LOI) to acquire a jet, if possible, a purchaser should use accountants and lawyers to develop tax minimization strategies and structures under federal tax law, including the use of bonus depreciation and other business deductions, state sales/use tax laws, and local property laws. Solid planning may be slower than purchasers expect but failing to do so can wreak tax and financial havoc.

Not Creating a Legal or Strong Aircraft Ownership/Operating Structure

A purchaser should determine the person or entity, often an LLC, that will own the jet, and then structure the operations of the jet in compliance with the FARs. An owner that violates the FARs invites FAA scrutiny and, sometimes, enforcement litigation by the FAA or the U.S. Department of Justice, easily causing owners to incur sky-high legal fees.

One of the most common problems stems from illegal charters, which take various forms. One rampant violation occurs when Part 91 operators lease their aircraft to many unrelated travelers, which is really a fake charter operation. Another violation often occurs when an LLC with no business enterprise operates the aircraft it owns or leases. The FAA views these flight operations as creating an illegal “flight department company.” When structured improperly, neither the leasing nor the LLC operator (allegedly) holds mandatory FAA certifications as commercial operators under the FARs.

Owners also frequently believe the same LLC provides a liability shield for its owners (members) from third-party liability claims. However, in general, the LLC will not protect the owners from any lawsuit or liability that may ensue from illegal aircraft flight operations or violations of federal or state laws. Although insurance helps mitigate this risk, it is a false premise that insurance suffices or will respond to alleged liability. More risk mitigation structuring and financial exposure analysis can pay off.

Skipping Aircraft Inspections

Although I have seen prospective purchasers bypass independent inspections in buying a new or used aircraft, that omission has led to surprises or disputes without an adequate legal remedy. Purchasers typically arrange a visual inspection of a jet and a review of its records.

If all goes well, an agreed maintenance facility then performs a pre-buy inspection, an in-depth aircraft checkup, and delivers an inspection report to the parties. This report identifies discrepancies that a seller usually fixes before the purchaser accepts or rejects the jet and closes the purchase. Leaving out this step is at best unwise. Beware—finding a facility and completing an inspection may push beyond a closing schedule.

Not Exploring Aircraft Management Arrangements Early and Often

Aircraft management companies hold the life of jet owners and passengers in their hands. These companies differ significantly in size, experience, and services. It is critical to conduct due diligence on at least two companies covering safety, service, transparency, integrity, pricing, and FAA status. Choosing based solely on the lowest cost or a referral may needlessly raise personal, asset, and operational risks.

A purchaser that does not consult a manager during an initial jet inspection may forfeit valuable hands-on knowledge about the operations and maintenance of the subject aircraft. In contract negotiations, a purchaser, with certain team members, should secure balanced terms in such key areas as safety practices, including Covid-19 protocols, expense controls, travel scheduling, and services provided.

Not Considering Financing Before Signing a Purchase Agreement

Even if a purchaser intends to buy a jet with cash, it is still worthwhile to inquire about leasing or borrowing to finance a jet acquisition before signing a purchase agreement. Most purchasers earn far more from their investments or businesses than the current very low rates. It is ideal to close a lease or loan at the purchase date, but either financing can occur later. Using a non-aviation lender or lessor is feasible, but may result in higher transaction fees, slower negotiations, and sub-optimal terms.

Conclusion

With the support of an experienced aviation team, a purchaser can complete a simple or complicated acquisition of a business jet smoothly and correctly. As aircraft deal activity rises amid Covid-19 safety concerns, it is worth understanding where mistakes can occur and how to prevent them.

This blog is purely informational and reflects the author’s experience and legal practice. It does not, and should not be construed to, provide legal advice of any kind, express or implied, or create a lawyer-client relationship. Each purchaser and other person or entity involved directly or indirectly in any issue, transaction, or matter covered in this blog should inquire of, and rely on, their aviation experts listed in the article, and other trusted advisors.