Are You a Deadbeat Owner?


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. Im probably deluding myself by saying it is a tiny fraction of owners, but it may very well be growing.

Im referring to the deadbeats, the hustlers, the malcontents and those extra special people who consume aviation services but dont 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. Ive 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? Thats why.

Personally, I cant stand this kind of behavior. Its wrong at so many levels that I dont know where to begin. Im sure the owner of that airplane would be justifiably pissed if his paycheck was two weeks late but hes perfectly okay jerking around his maintenance shop on an invoice delayed for a month. When I see this, I cant help but want to sit the owner down in front of the ledger and show him how much money the shop has to front-in parts and labor-just 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 its 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 dont like throwing money around promiscuously, but I dont like hanging invoices, either. Long delays make it impossible to manage the expenses of owning an airplane with anything approaching clarity and organization. If Im 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 Im standing there scratching my ass over some particular problem and the mechanic diverts from other work to bail me out, thats billable time. Similarly, if were working side-by-side, thats 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, its a billable hour, at least, accounting for tools. I log that time and even though he doesnt 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, shouldnt expect anything for free from service shops? Thats not an easy question to answer, but I tilt toward saying no, we shouldnt 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 owners behalf, payment of some kind is due, unless its agreed-upon warranty or goodwill work. Im not really interested in working for free, why should I expect others to be?

Now Im sure none of the readers of this blog would remotely qualify as deadbeats, but Im 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.

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