What to consider at checkup time

An aircraft starts to deteriorate as soon as it leaves the factory. Parts wear out and corrosion sneaks into hard-to-reach corners. Expensive engine components tick off their allowed lifetime operating cycles and hours each time you fly. There's only one way to combat this entropy, preserve airworthiness and maximize safety, and that is by performing maintenance.

In most cases, owners of business jets have no choice but to follow a maintenance program-the FAA requires it. This includes scheduled items like inspections and replacement of components, and unscheduled items like replacement of prematurely failing instruments, pumps and engine parts. Additional maintenance, such as periodic corrosion control, prevention programs and other life-extending measures, is also necessary.

Here are the answers to four key questions you may be asking about this important subject.

1. Who's responsible for maintenance?
You might be surprised to learn that FAA regulations place the responsibility for maintenance squarely on the owner or operator's shoulders. The operator, in this case, refers to a legal entity such as a charter certificate holder, not to a management company. If your aircraft is being managed, you, the owner, are still the responsible party in the FAA's eyes.

In light of this, it is critical that maintenance be properly documented, said John Rahilly, principal of Rahilly Aviation Associates, a consulting service in Edenton, N.C. Good documentation not only ensures safety, but also helps preserve an aircraft's value. "You need to take an active role in maintenance and make sure you know your aircraft is adequately maintained," he said. If you're not sure how to do this, seek professional advice. Many owners hire an FAA-certified mechanic to help manage the maintenance process. Maintenance consultants and providers can also advise you.

2. How much does maintenance cost?
Maintenance accounts for about 30 percent of variable aircraft operating costs, based on a fuel price of $4.49 per gallon, according to Conklin & de Decker's Aircraft Cost Evaluator. There are regular inspections, component overhauls, engine "events" (mid-life inspections and overhauls) and even periodic major airframe inspections such as the mandatory 12-year wing removal on Learjets, which can take hundreds of man-hours at $80 to $100 per hour. FAA Airworthiness Directives and manufacturer service bulletins further escalate costs.

Turbine engine overhauls are expensive, too. Parts whirl around at tens of thousands of revolutions per minute with a few thousandths of an inch clearance at extremely high temperatures. Repairs and maintenance require exotic materials and processes. A typical Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 turboprop engine used in a Hawker Beechcraft King Air costs $180,000 to $700,000 to overhaul, according to engine maintenance specialist StandardAero. Overhauling a GE CF34 turbofan engine in a Bombardier Challenger runs $970,000 to $1.7 million.

Engine overhaul cost variables include which life-limited parts, such as critical engine disks and blades, need to be replaced and whether the engine's modification status has been kept up to date. While some modifications might not be mandatory, they usually improve efficiency, add life and are less expensive to comply with during the engine's in-service span than during an overhaul event.

3. Who should perform maintenance?
Your pilots and in-house maintenance technicians will know the best places to take your aircraft for service. Owners generally stick with factory-owned or -authorized facilities during warranty periods. There are many excellent non-factory-authorized maintenance facilities, too, but the key issue is whether the technicians know your aircraft. "Make sure you're going to a quality shop," said Mike Saadhoff, director of maintenance sales for Elliott Aviation, which has four maintenance centers in the Midwest. Reputation is important, he added, because the aircraft's value is enhanced by the status of the facility that appears in your logbooks.

Another sign of first-rate maintenance is that the shop has an independent quality-control department staffed by inspectors who double-check each technician's work. At Elliott Aviation, the quality-control department reports to the general manager, not the service department, and thus inspectors aren't subject to pressure to get the work out the door. "The only worry they have is whether the airplane is going out correctly," said Saadhoff.

4. How can I save on maintenance?
One way to save on maintenance is to have it done now, because prices are low due to heavier competition caused by the recession. "It's a buyer's market," said Rahilly. "The providers, in order to keep their doors open, are willing to negotiate and cut deals and are deeply discounting work." Of course, as the economy improves, "the pricing will firm up," he added.

You can also save with combination pricing on jobs that require a variety of skills and can be done at the same time. When an aircraft's interior is removed for a major inspection, for example, that is the perfect opportunity for interior refurbishing and avionics and entertainment system upgrades.

Finally, you can save by signing up for a cost-per-hour program. Such programs help smooth out maintenance costs, make budgeting easier and eliminate the nasty surprise of a prematurely failed $500,000 engine part. The programs are also transferable to new owners and add value to an aircraft. Most engine and some airframe manufacturers offer these programs, as does one independent company (see 'An Independent Cost-Per-Hour Program' below).

An Independent Cost-Per-Hour Program

Signing up for cost-per-hour maintenance programs with an engine or airframe manufacturer can help you manage costs.

In addition, one independent company, Jet Support Services, Inc. (JSSI) of Chicago, offers a Tip-to-Tail program that covers the entire aircraft, including engines and avionics, though not soft interior goods or paint. Moreover, owners can enroll even if their engines are already halfway through their time between overhauls, and JSSI will pay half the cost of the next overhaul.

JSSI places all program funds into a trust account and withdraws the money only when it performs maintenance. This protects customers against situations like the one that occurred when owners prepaid for Eclipse Aviation's cost-per-hour program and lost that money after the company declared bankruptcy and the factory closed. Owners can choose their maintenance provider, as long as it's factory-authorized, although JSSI is launching a preferred-provider discount program.

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