Access to private aircraft can provide productivity and other benefits for a family-operated business and improve the quality of life for the business owner and his family. However, purchasing, owning and operating a private aircraft requires careful consideration of a number of business, legal, tax and regulatory issues. These issues make it imperative that a small business owner consult with legal and tax counsel to ensure that the owner’s interests are properly represented in the purchase of the aircraft, that the owner purchases and operates the aircraft in a tax-advantaged structure, and that the owner operates the aircraft in strict accordance with the rules and regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). This blog post provides an overview of several of the numerous issues that should be considered when purchasing, owning and operating a private aircraft and will be followed by additional blog posts providing a more detailed discussion on each of the issues raised below.

Initial Purchase of Aircraft

The first step in purchasing a private aircraft is often the preparation of a letter of intent (LOI) or other similar non-binding document setting forth the proposed terms for the purchase and sale of the aircraft. The LOI is typically prepared by the purchaser and presented to the seller for consideration. Once the parties reach agreement on the general terms for the purchase and sale of the aircraft, the LOI is signed and legal counsel for the parties will prepare the aircraft purchase agreement (APA). The APA is particularly important to the purchaser as it provides the purchaser with rights to perform a thorough pre-purchase inspection and to perform other due diligence to ensure that the aircraft is in the condition represented by the seller or the seller’s broker.

Compliance with FAA Regulatory Requirements (Parts 91 and 135 Operations)

Privately owned aircraft are operated under either Part 91 or Part 135 of the FAA rules. Part 91 governs the operation of private aircraft for non-commercial, private carriage uses (e.g., flights for business and personal and family flights). Part 135 governs the use of private aircraft for charter flights and other commercial uses. Failure to comply with the FAA rules for the operation of a private aircraft can result in significant fines and liabilities, including the loss of insurance coverage for the owner and operator of the aircraft.

Liability of Owner/Operator of Aircraft

Owning and operating a private aircraft have the potential to expose an owner/operator to catastrophic loss. Many owners and operators are surprised to learn that they can be held liable for incidents of loss even when they are not piloting—or even onboard—the aircraft. Most risks associated with the ownership and operation of a private aircraft are not mitigated simply by titling the aircraft in the name of a separate legal entity, such as a corporation or limited liability company. Rather, the FAA extends legal and regulatory responsibility for flight operations to anyone who has “operational control” of the aircraft.

Sharing an Aircraft

Owners of private aircraft may enter into various types of arrangements to share ownership and/or use of an aircraft with others. Examples of such arrangements are leases, time sharing agreements, joint ownership, and charters. Each arrangement presents certain FAA regulatory compliance issues, risk allocation issues, and federal and state tax issues. This is true irrespective of whether the owner is sharing the aircraft with related parties (e.g., a subsidiary company, family members, etc.).

This is Part 1 in a series of blog posts by Wood Herren addressing various issues pertaining to the purchase, ownership and operation of private aircraft by family business owners. Stay tuned for Wood’s next post in this series, which will address other protections that an aircraft purchase agreement may provide a purchaser.