As an aircraft owner, it is probably fair to say that you would like to know a little more about how to reduce some of the costs associated with the annual inspection (or with the maintenance in general). Reducing maintenance costs is a common concern for operators as they consider the overall responsibility of aircraft ownership. Once we have resolved ourselves to the significance of having to spend money in order to fly safely, we have yet to explore some of the options available to owners in terms of education and involvement in the maintenance process to potentially save some money in the right places.
Let them do the work
Certain maintenance shops support the idea of owner-assisted annuals by giving the aircraft owner the opportunity to participate in the maintenance process. This may be accomplished through performing menial tasks such as removing panels, cleaning and running around for parts. This theory works well in some shop environments and not so well in others. Let me explain; the AME performing or supervising the inspection must be personally comfortable with the owner being present in the shop. He may not be comfortable with the idea of someone else watching over his shoulder or getting under foot as work is in progress. Sometimes it is in the owner’s best interest to stay out of the way. Depending on the mechanical inclination of the owner, it may be more work for the AME to oversee what is being touched and providing answers to well meaning questions every 10 minutes. This kind of situation will not necessarily end up in cost savings but rather end up as a costly educational exercise for the benefit of the owner. Whatever is decided, please remember that any extra activity beyond the comfort level of the AME is a distraction to him and therefore a negative contributor to his focused inspection.
On the other hand, spending some time with your AME in an effort to learn how to perform some simpler tasks can also be a great way for hands-on type owners to get involved in doing some of the less complex tasks or servicing requirements. According to CAR Standard 625 Appendix A, the aircraft owner may be trained and authorized to perform only those specific items listed as private aircraft tasks. This is called Elementary Work and is considered an acceptable practice provided that the conditions for training and documentation of the tasks have been met. From a maintenance perspective, the same responsibilities stated in CAR 571.02 also apply in the performance of Elementary Work. If you have the co-ordination and mechanical aptitude, a good teacher and a clean hangar in which to perform these tasks, then by all means get your hands dirty and save some money. If you are not so inclined then it’s best to leave it to the pros.
A good example of doing your own work could apply to an engine oil change which is considered an Elementary task for private owners as well as changing tires, light bulbs or spark plugs. Any work completed requires the proper log book entry as well. Enter a brief description of the work but no maintenance release statement as that would only pertain to an AME certification only. Only an AME can certify maintenance which is considered a higher category of work than elementary tasks. While these examples of simplified tasks are presented as a do-it-yourself option (like buying wood from Home Depot to make a bookcase), do not attempt any of these tasks if only motivated by saving a few bucks. The trade-off of a poorly executed task and possibly compromising the safety of the aircraft is plainly not worth it. Never do anything to an aircraft unless you are completely comfortable with the work. It’s not for everybody. Some fly and some fix, not everybody can do both.
The idea of performing your own work can also be extended to a more primary level of work known as servicing. The aircraft POH or maintenance manual outlines the servicing requirements for the aircraft including the scheduled frequency for routine tasks. Servicing tasks may include checking of tire pressures, checking fluid levels and lubrication of linkages and hinges. This basic level of caring for the aircraft can also include properly installing gust locks on flight controls, protecting the tires and painted surfaces from the harmful effects of ultraviolet rays or even considering the proper use of cowl inlet plugs to keep birds and their nests out of the engine compartment. Contributing in these areas raises the potential for saving you money with minimal effort or and without significant investment in materials. All of these tasks are usually found in the aircraft operating handbook and you should be familiar with them even if you still rely on others to perform the work.
Interested owners should consider scheduling your annual inspection away from the busy spring season so that the AME can spend more quality time on your aircraft and with you. The annual is typically due within 12 months of the previous annual but can be moved ahead as you wish. Significantly changing that date to put it in a mutually agreeable time of year only shortens your annual year for that one time but ultimately works in your favor in the long run. Perhaps there is a specific time of year for the aircraft to be down for maintenance that fits better around your planned trips and adventures. Understanding the airworthiness requirements for your aircraft enables you to make more informed decisions in terms of both spending money and maintenance planning.
Shared ownership in an aircraft is another avenue for shaving maintenance costs on small aircraft. If you are the owner of a small two or four place aircraft and use it for recreational flying maybe 10 times per year then you still have specific cost and contributing maintenance issues on that aircraft. First of all, by not using the aircraft regularly, you may be contributing to the problem of internal corrosion in the engine. This is especially true when that aircraft is parked outdoors in a tie down exposed to the elements throughout the year. The continued exposure to harsh elements also causes cracking of the rubber tires (known as weather-checking), crazing of acrylic windows, corrodes hardware, damages paint and plastic trim. Think of those natural elements as eating away at your bank account. Having somebody else to share the expense may be a reasonable answer. Of course, there is the matter of being financially tied to the right person who will do their part in respecting the arrangement. Perhaps the greatest motivator for sharing the cost of ownership is also sharing the utilization of the aircraft. This in itself may actually save you money as its good for the engine and perhaps you could even afford to rent a hangar too.
If you are looking to purchase an aircraft, keep in mind that older and more complex aircraft will cost you more money. Retractable landing gear and constant speed propellers require more maintenance just as turbochargers and extra cylinders do (especially at overhaul time). Your decision ultimately depends on what your intentions are for the aircraft. Simpler aircraft don’t have as much to offer for the more serious traveler but may give your wallet a break, and this just may be the ticket for the fair weather flier.
My final point with saving money is that there have been numerous situations where an aircraft owner decides to try a different shop from their normal place either out of convenience or recommendation and ended up experiencing a drastic increase or decrease in the cost of the annual inspection. How does this make any sense when nothing significant has happened since the previous annual? I will tell you. Not all AME’s are the same. Even though I have stressed the significance of the responsibilities of the AME and that of the owner, we still need to accept the reality that as people, we will all view these responsibilities with varying attitudes and work habits. Some of us will only look for the easiest solutions whereas others will look for nothing less than perfection, but most of us will be comfortable somewhere between the two extremes.
Good shops often end up being misunderstood for doing a proper annual by correcting what the previous shop should have done. Who is really to blame for the sudden shift in cost here? I have seen it many times. The opposite is true as well when shopping for a better price. This is why your understanding of the airworthiness requirements is so critical to the maintenance process.
Finding the right relationship here also depends on the attitude of the owner and not just the AME. The owner must accept the responsibility of ownership just as the AME must accept the power of his/her license that can end up being suspended if intentionally abused. My emphasis on building the relationship between Owner and AME is to reinforce your regulatory responsibilities as the key to a more positive ownership experience. I trust that these thoughts will enable you to seek out good references as well as trust your gut instinct when contemplating your next annual inspection. The process is not always an easy one but the reward for money well spent and peace of mind is the ultimate thrill of flight and pride of ownership making it all worthwhile.