Are You a Deadbeat Owner?

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In the admittedly dwindling universe of aircraft owners, there is some small percentage of people who are not ethically or morally qualified to own airplanes. Iím probably deluding myself by saying it is a tiny fraction of owners, but it may very well be growing.

Iím referring to the deadbeats, the hustlers, the malcontents and those extra special people who consume aviation services but donít feel they have to pay for them in a timely fashion. I hang around the airport enough to see this sort of thing as I did this week. Iíve been working on getting the engine back into the Cub after an overhaul, wrenching alongside our regular IA, Danny. While we were working, an airplane sped by on the taxiway and Danny happened to mention that the owner had a weeks-old unpaid annual invoice. You wonder why shops want to be paid before they release the airplane? Thatís why.

Personally, I canít stand this kind of behavior. Itís wrong at so many levels that I donít know where to begin. Iím sure the owner of that airplane would be justifiably pissed if his paycheck was two weeks late but heís perfectly okay jerking around his maintenance shop on an invoice delayed for a month. When I see this, I canít help but want to sit the owner down in front of the ledger and show him how much money the shop has to frontóin parts and laborójust to get even basic work done, much less an annual involving major repairs and alterations. For shops that have to make payroll, this can be a cash flow nightmare and itís little better for a one-man shop.

I would just as soon eat cold beans from a can and become a crack addict than I would have someone chasing me for money I owe them. So when I get the invoice, I write the check and drive to the airport and hand it to the mechanic or shop supervisor that very day. If an invoice is late coming, I usually hector the shop to get it done. I donít like throwing money around promiscuously, but I donít like hanging invoices, either. Long delays make it impossible to manage the expenses of owning an airplane with anything approaching clarity and organization. If Iím going broke owning the damn thing, I at least want to know the dimensions of the disaster in real time.

And that gets me to owner-assisted work, which I do a lot of on the Cub. This is a bit of a gray area when it comes to shop billable hours. But the way I look at it, if Iím standing there scratching my ass over some particular problem and the mechanic diverts from other work to bail me out, thatís billable time. Similarly, if weíre working side-by-side, thatís billable time. And there needs to be some basic contribution to overhead. I don't work this out ahead of time, I just pay what I think is fair.

When I was removing the engine, I needed a little help with a couple of components and borrowed a hoist, cylinder wrenches and a thin-walled socket to loosen the exhaust manifold nuts. All that took Danny 30 minutes, maybe, but by my standards, itís a billable hour, at least, accounting for tools. I log that time and even though he doesnít invoice me for it, I make sure I pay him anyway. As for the tools, I try to bring my own, but borrowing some is unavoidable. I make sure they get back where they came from.

Does any of this mean we, as aircraft owners, shouldnít expect anything for free from service shops? Thatís not an easy question to answer, but I tilt toward saying no, we shouldnít expect free things. Two examples: I was having trouble with a VOR indicator in our Mooney and stopped by Sarasota Avionics for a quick look. The tech crawled under the panel, found a loose connector and snapped it home. Total time: five minutes. As a regular customer of the shop, I asked what I owed and they quite naturally waived it off. Fair enough.

A year later, I had a similar problem with the autopilot that the tech sweated over in 92-degree heat for just under an hour. It was a broken wire. Once again, the shop waived off an invoice, so I paid the tech $100 directly. Call it a tip. It struck me as fair and kept me as far away from the deadbeat column as is possible. Regular customer or not, I believe that when a shop or mechanic does work on the ownerís behalf, payment of some kind is due, unless itís agreed-upon warranty or goodwill work. Iím not really interested in working for free, why should I expect others to be?

Now Iím sure none of the readers of this blog would remotely qualify as deadbeats, but Iím equally sure you know people who do. I doubt if they can be shamed into mending their skinflint ways, but hey, it never hurts to at least bring up the subject. Anyway, if you happen to have a shop invoice there on your desk you meant to pay last week, well, you know what to do.

You can wish the shop a happy Thanksgiving when you drop the check off. And same to you, my friends.

Join the conversation. †Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (23)

As you have observed this is not a new phenomenon. When I worked for an FBO, there seemed like they were always operating in arrears when it came to money, even with customers that paid on time, much less the ones who don't.

One particular guy I worked for was ruthless about calling out accounts receivable in front of the whole Saturday morning crowd. This shame-tactic worked for getting the money, but his overall bedside manner ran off more business than it created.

As this is not unique to aviation, I'm not sure about what the solution should be, but I concede that it's a problem.

Thanks Paul.

Brent -

Posted by: Brent Owens | November 28, 2013 6:39 AM    Report this comment

As you have observed this is not a new phenomenon. When I worked for an FBO, there seemed like they were always operating in arrears when it came to money, even with customers that paid on time, much less the ones who don't.

One particular guy I worked for was ruthless about calling out accounts receivable in front of the whole Saturday morning crowd. This shame-tactic worked for getting the money, but his overall bedside manner ran off more business than it created.

As this is not unique to aviation, I'm not sure about what the solution should be, but I concede that it's a problem.

Thanks Paul.

Brent -

Posted by: Brent Owens | November 28, 2013 6:40 AM    Report this comment

unfortunately, in today's world, it is not such a one-sided story. So what happens if you agree completion dates with a shop, and the shop misses time after time. And you find out your project becomes a time filler. Meaning the mechanic only works on your plane when nothing else is there to do. How much of that is billable? A 20 hour job easily becomes a 40 or 60 hour job if done in 3-4 hour junkets, with days or more in between, meaning the mechanic has to set up everything fresh, remember where he stopped, study what he needs to do, and plan how to get there. Unfortunately, I have seen this too often. And in today's situation where there is often little competition left, it becomes common. So how do you deal with it? Should you pay the real time? Or the time it would have taken to do the job in one go.....

Posted by: ROBERT ZIEGLER | November 28, 2013 6:41 AM    Report this comment

There's a way to avoid to this whole discussion in the first place: Don't leave the shop without paying your bill. Period. Could you leave a car dealer service area without paying a $6 or $600 charge for work performed on your BWM? You couldn't even try, because you wouldn't get your keys. It's arrogant for an aircraft owner to think it should happen any differently at his maintenance and avionics shop. As a tech for over 20 years, there wasn't a month that went by where someone would show up to pick up an aircraft without having payment. Want to alienate yourself from your shop? Tell them you "forgot your checkbook" or that your "partner has the aircraft checkbook" or "I'll send you a check". That could be the difference between a shop being able to make payroll or not--or you not getting service from that shop again.

Posted by: LARRY ANGLISANO | November 28, 2013 6:56 AM    Report this comment

No argument at all. This is not, however, an aviation phenomenon. I was in a veterinary practice for my working career, and seeing a dead-beat client at a horse show riding the horse I had stitched up at midnight, and for which I wasn't paid, made me reach for the Tums. There are jerks everywhere. Their behavior is usually unrelated to net worth. Are they teachable?

Posted by: Jim Grady | November 28, 2013 7:02 AM    Report this comment

One suggestion: set the expectation up front in a friendly but firm way. Sometimes, we are so glad to have business, we're reluctant to talk frankly about terms at the outset. Establishing a friendly relationship is good for business and earns some credit that may be needed when things don't work out quite right at the shop but customer must be clear that you run a business. Boatyards have an expression, 'no cash, no splash'.

Posted by: Jonathan Micocci | November 28, 2013 8:45 AM    Report this comment

A timely reminder on an important but rarely discussed topic. God job, Paul

Posted by: DAVID GAGLIARDI | November 28, 2013 10:27 AM    Report this comment

What we are talking about happens in every industry.
I take exception when I've been given a quote for the job to be done. Turn up with the agreed amount of cash to pay only to be told that it is actually three time the original quote and there was no notification of the change.

When I do work for someone and I can see that the job is more than expected I contact the owner and give them a new quote and clear reasons for the increase.

And yes I do not like to be unpaid for work done. If there is an agreement for a particular amount then I expect payment immediately and vise versa I make payment immediately on agreed amounts.

The saying is don't be a lender or a borrower and you will have life long friends

Posted by: Bruce Savage | November 28, 2013 1:54 PM    Report this comment

Good reliable shops are worth their weight in gold. I have owned aircraft for over forty years and I trust the shops I do business with When I am having expensive work done such as avionics installation or major expensive parts I always offer to pay for the parts or make a deposit on my account to provide working cash for the shop. Once many years ago I put up the cash for a shop to make payroll. Twenty plus years later they are still in business and treat me like royalty.

Posted by: Bernard Freeman | November 28, 2013 1:57 PM    Report this comment

My parents, by word and example, taught me to be like you, Paul. When I get a bill I pay it, period.
If there is a question I discuss it with the billing party so every thing is straight. I have ,as someone noted, had to literally chase one of the good guys to get him to bill me. Had the house re-roofed
after hurricane Charlie,done by a great guy I knew, the county inspector praised his work compared
to other stuff he was seeing, and it took almost two months of bugging the roofer before he sent me
the bill so I could pay him. It bothered me to owe him for that long for excellent quality of work.

Posted by: Joe Sikora | November 28, 2013 9:09 PM    Report this comment

Let's not forget the FBO, flight school, airport owner for hanger or tie down rent they to have trouble getting paid.

Posted by: Steve Gris | November 28, 2013 9:38 PM    Report this comment

NOT just aircraft owners - but MOST of all general aviation (recreational) consumers; the solution: Install the "PIlots Lounge Hobbs Hour Meter" at your FBO or flight school. Like the old saying in aviation; Want to make a million - start with two million!
COMING at a flight school near you:: Owner assisted fight instruction?

Posted by: Rod Beck | November 29, 2013 7:04 AM    Report this comment

I pay my bills on time and have a maintenance outfit that I've worked with for many years on three different aircraft, but they're a few hundred miles away. I have given them advances on occasion when the amounts were large (Citation phase inspections can run into the tens of thousands). Another outfit I use occasionally for smaller items is at my home airport but doesn't have the expertise for large items. Also, they seem to go out of their way to look for work, sometimes saying things are needed that really aren't. I've paid them in advance because I know they've struggled to stay open, which is probably why they look for as much work as possible. As a business owner, I know how difficult it can be to make payroll and expenses, so although I keep a close eye on them and discuss anything that doesn't seem quite right, I still give them what work I can.

Posted by: Walt Woltosz | November 29, 2013 9:27 AM    Report this comment

The few shops I've dealt with have expected payment when I picked up the plane, just like automotive or other businesses. Since, as previous commenters have pointed out, people are people everywhere, maybe Paul's shop is just too easy-going. No pay, no key.

It certainly does work both ways though. I still have a bad taste from back in my commuting days when I needed that plane every day. I had carefully pre-arranged with a shop to do an engine swap during the time I was to be gone on two weeks' vacation, made sure the new engine & all necessary parts were in his hands, etc. I left with a firm handshake from the owner promising it would be ready to go on my return. When I came back the job had not even been started and I found the owner had left on his own fishing vacation the day after I dropped the plane off. And no offer of consideration from him, either.

Posted by: John Wilson | November 29, 2013 11:07 AM    Report this comment

Bless you, Paul--you nailed it! I've sent copies to some of my fellow FBO owners--I'm sure they will shake their heads as I did!

Even worse than the "no-pay" owner is the guy that takes his airplane to a "send in the logbooks" facility for an annual. That's OK, because I don't want to work on a corner-cutter's airplane. The vexing thing is that they come to us for the nickel and dime things--aircraft hardware, for example. It costs us money to have the mechanic pick it out for them, and invariably they feels that they are being hosed when we charge them. When their 6-year old battery won't start the airplane, they ask us for a jump start--then feel abused when we charge them--after all, "you didn't charge the guy in the next hangar" (a regular customer).

When the "good ol' boy" shade tree mechanic moves on--do they remember them fondly? No, they are in our pilot lounge--asking if we will make fresh coffee--and stating "that doggone mechanic up and left--NOW where am I going to take my airplane?"

Posted by: jim hanson | November 29, 2013 2:49 PM    Report this comment

Generally I agree with you about prompt remittance. How do you handle it when the mechanic drags it out and doesn't follow though... Despite repeated requests to honor missed completion dates? Each date missed costing the owner money and inconvenience?

Posted by: John Townsley | November 29, 2013 2:59 PM    Report this comment

The problem was solved about 40 years with the advent of credit cards. There are lots of credit card companies on the internet, Quickbooks accounting system has a credit card system, most local banks have a credit card system. Yes, there is a charge to the shop for accepting a credit card but it represents guaranteed cash in a few days and the shop can increase rates to cover it.

If a shop wants to bill an account instead of getting a credit card then the shop accepts the risk of a slow/non pay. Otherwise if you want your airplane back then I need a credit card number over the phone or in person.

Most of the comments above illustrate the problem of general aviation service companies - they are nice people but have no idea how to run a business.

Posted by: JAMES MEHLING | November 29, 2013 3:17 PM    Report this comment

My old Dad ran a lumber yard. I would help out with the billing. Dad put an especially strident note on the overdue bill of a good customer. "Aren't you being a little hard on this customer?" I asked. He responded:

"Let me tell you about overdue bills." A customer gets behind on the bill--and you let him. After a while, when you demand payment, he finds reasons why he isn't paying you--"The product was defective"--(never mind that he hasn't bothered to mention this to you before). After a while, he starts telling everybody else what a lousy S.O.B. you are--how the work was shoddy. You not only lost a customer, but potentially lost all of the people the non-payer told about your crummy business" Dad concluded with "If ANYBODY is going to get angry, it ought to be ME, for not getting paid in the first place!"

Posted by: jim hanson | November 29, 2013 5:19 PM    Report this comment

"How do you handle it when the mechanic drags it out and doesn't follow though..."

Find another mechanic. If you're stuck in a place where that's not a choice, welcome to GA hell. In my experience, shops that work and behave this way just don't have the skills and ability to do otherwise, so no amount of reasoning is going to change that.

And what about shops that just don't deliver the work otherwise or overcharge? Tough one. But the same general advice applies. I have disputed a few charges that just seemed outrageous. I recall one being explained to me, it still felt high, but acceptable. Another was just around the bend on hours and the shop supervisor admitted it when he dug into it and we reached an agreement.

I don't really like grinding people on the price for the work they've done because I know no one's getting rich doing this stuff. But fair is fair.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 1, 2013 7:39 AM    Report this comment

It's not just shops getting hurt. I'm based at a small private airport where we have to pay annually to use the runway. We used to have one owner who wasn't just late, he didn't pay at all. He was run off a few times but kept turning back up. The airport owners and operator were too easy going and didn't want a confrontation. It didn't just cost the airport owners money, but created a lot of ill will among the other plane owners who were paying. We finally got rid of him when he lost his medical. He moved the plane to another airport and asked them to do an annual on it, but to take their time.

Posted by: John Worsley | December 1, 2013 8:11 PM    Report this comment

To Jim Mehling; "They are "nice" people, but have no idea how to run a business". Jim, I think you came upon GA's "retail providers" BIGGEST problem - BUSINESS - AMEN! Jim, other readers , and you also Paul, might find our article of December 2012,"Will BUSINESS ever come to Recreational Aviation?" on our blog at of interest - your comments please! Thanks, Rod

Posted by: Rod Beck | December 1, 2013 8:46 PM    Report this comment

God bless you Paul; you and I could be identical twins regarding this issue. I absolutely can't stand knowing I owe somebody something and want it settled NOW! I can't imagine what planet these deadbeats are from. In the old days of cattle rustling they wouldn't last long ha ha !

Two other things:

1. Never loan tools (and I mean NEVER)

2. ALWAYS tip your server (unless they have an attitude problem or gross incompetence). These folks deserve to be paid for their service.

Posted by: A Richie | December 2, 2013 10:34 AM    Report this comment

Here's my business experience. We don't have an FBO or repair facility, but we do operate in a similarly declining market, albeit non-aviation.
Most people are very good, and we appreciate them. Some people we have to work with. They are going to take us out 30 days no matter what. That's the way they get paid, so they pay the same way in turn. But the money's there.
There are also some well-meaning folks who are probably going to chip away at the bill for a few months because they're in over their heads. These folks should put what they owe on a credit card on day one, but they don't. Maybe they shouldn't own airplanes, but they do. These folks are the hard calls, because the reality is that our pool of potential new customers isn't getting any deeper.
In any case, we plan for a collection period that's more than one day. (In truth, closer to 50 days, but we have no expense line that compares with buying parts, engines, etc.)
We let them get to 60 days before we get serious. At an FBO, which could get thousands into a job, 10 days is probably enough.
After that, well, ain't business if you ain't getting paid.

Posted by: Jerry Fraser | December 2, 2013 3:40 PM    Report this comment

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