Ken is the proud owner of a late-model high-performance single-engine airplane. It’s a gorgeous machine, with wall-to-wall glass in the cockpit, a big turbocharged engine, 500 hours on the Hobbs meter, almost no squawks, and still under factory warranty on both engine and airframe. So when Ken took it to a well-known factory-authorized service center for its annual inspection, he expected that it would be relatively painless. Imagine his shock when the shop presented him with an estimate of more than $8,500. That’s when he called me for advice.
I reviewed the shop’s estimate. It started out with a flat-rate charge for the annual inspection (performed in accordance with the manufacturer’s annual inspection checklist) of $2,850. This was 30 hours of labor at the shop’s rate of $95/hour, which in my experience was right on target for this make and model.
The next item that caught my eye was a $200 estimate for cleaning the engine’s fuel injector nozzles. I used to do such prophylactic nozzle cleaning on my own airplane until about 10 years ago, when I had an illuminating discussion with George Braly (of GAMI and Tornado Alley Turbo fame), who is arguably the world’s expert on fuel nozzles. George pointed out to me that there’s no valid reason to do such periodic nozzle cleaning, because the nozzles do not get dirty in service (since they are continuously being cleaned by a very effective solvent). He told me that in his experience with many thousands of GAMIjector nozzles, virtually all clogged nozzle events occurred shortly after maintenance during which the fuel system was opened up and some foreign material got into the system. That resonated with me, because in the first 12 years I owned my Cessna T310R, I experienced two clogged-nozzle episodes, and both occurred right after maintenance due to grease getting into the fuel system. So I stopped cleaning my nozzles 10 years ago, and haven’t had a clogged nozzle since. I advised Ken to decline the nozzle cleaning.
There was a $300 estimate to replace the O-rings on the brake calipers. I asked Ken whether he had spongy brakes or had any evidence of brake fluid leakage at the calipers. He said no. I suggested he decline the O-ring replacement.
There was a $1,700 estimate for “4-year overhaul of pressurized mags”—$700 for each magneto plus 3 hours to remove and reinstall. The aircraft is equipped with Continental S-20 mags, and the Continental Ignition System Master Service Manual X40000 calls for a 500-hour IRAN (inspect and repair as necessary), not an overhaul. The IRAN typically costs $300 to $400 per mag, depending on what parts need to be replaced. I suggested that Ken instruct the shop to do the 500-hour IRAN instead of the overhaul exchange, which would knock about $700 off the invoice.
There was a $400 estimate to replace the magneto pressurization filter. The filter is clear plastic (actually tinted green) so you can inspect it and see if it needs to be changed. It was clean as a whistle. I suggested that Ken decline the filter change.
Next was a $800 estimate to replace the battery. The aircraft manufacturer’s checklist recommends replacing it every two years, and Ken’s was two years old. But the battery manufacturer (Teledyne-Gill) recommends doing an annual capacity test and replacing the battery only when its capacity falls below 80% of specs. Using the capacity-test method, these batteries typically last 3 to 5 years before flunking the test. Another thing that bothered me was that the battery—a Gill G-243—cost $395 at Aircraft Spruce, but was listed on the estimate as costing $774. Now I don’t have a problem with shops making a fair profit on the parts they install, but marking up a $395 battery to $774 struck me as a bit much. So I suggested that Ken decline the battery change, wait until the battery flunks its capacity check, and then consider buying the battery and installing it himself.
Then there was a $320 estimate to change the filter in his TKS anti-icing system. The manufacturer recommends changing this filter every 2 years (and his was 2 years old), but in hundreds of filters changed we’ve never seen one that wasn’t spotlessly clean. The shop agreed with this observation. I advised Ken that unless he had some reason to believe someone dumped a Diet Coke into his TKS tank, he should decline the TKS filter change.
Ken called the service center and politely declined the various items that I’d recommended. Ken reported that the shop’s Director of Maintenance had no problem complying with Ken’s instructions, and the invoice wound up some $3,000 lower than it would have been otherwise. That’s enough to buy a fair amount of 100LL, even at today’s prices.
Now many of you are probably thinking that this service center was trying to rip Ken off, and he should never take his airplane back there again. I disagree.
In today’s litigious world, any mechanic or shop that doesn’t recommend following the manufacturer’s guidance to the letter risks being sued and taken to the cleaners if anything goes wrong. Therefore, in my view, Ken’s service center was almost compelled to present Ken with the estimate that they did. Call it “defensive maintenance” or “CYA” if you wish, but it’s the way things are in today’s post-GARA, non-tort-reform world.
The way I see it, the responsibility for “just saying no” to these over-the-top maintenance recommendations lies with the aircraft owner, not the shop. If the aircraft owner instructs the shop (in writing) that he declines some manufacturer-recommended maintenance task, that takes the shop off the liability hook and allows them to do things the way the owner wants them done without fear of being sued.
Therefore, if an owner wants to avoid paying through the nose for such defensive maintenance, he needs to learn when to say no.
When to say no
Learning when to say no takes a good deal of knowledge and experience, but there are some basic rules. The most important rule is that you never say no to any maintenance procedure that is required by regulation. For example, FAR Part 43 Appendix D requires that every annual inspection on a piston aircraft must include a compression test of the cylinders, cutting open the oil filter to inspect for metal, and running up the engine to check that critical engine operating parameters (oil pressure, static RPM, etc.) are within normal limits. Mechanics are also required to comply with any “Airworthiness Limitations” contained in the manufacturer’s service manual or ICAs. Any applicable Airworthiness Directives must be complied with. All these things are non-negotiable.
It’s also best to avoid saying no to proposed repairs that the inspecting A&P/IA considers to be “airworthiness items.” Those are generally discrepancies that he considers to be safety-of-flight items, and will not be comfortable approving the aircraft for return to service until they are corrected. But don’t be fooled. Many of the items that I suggested Ken decline were listed on the shop’s estimate as “Airworthy Item,” yet when Ken instructed the shop not to do them, they accepted his direction without argument. So just because an item is listed on the estimate as an airworthiness item doesn’t necessarily mean that it really is one. When in doubt, say no and see how the IA responds. If he tells you he’s not comfortable signing off the annual unless you approve the repair, then it’s time to re-think your position.
Good candidates for saying no to include time-directed maintenance recommendations for things that can be readily done on-condition instead. Ken’s battery, pressurization filter, brake O-rings and TKS filter are good examples. (So are most engine and propeller TBOs in my opinion, but not everyone agrees with me.) Consider ignoring the time recommendations and replace or repair these items only when inspection shows that they need to be replaced or repaired. We should only be maintaining things on time (like the 500-hour magneto IRAN) if there’s no practical way to maintain them on-condition.
Also consider saying no to preventive maintenance items intended to prevent failures whose consequences you consider acceptable. For example, replacing your vacuum pump every 500 hours (per the manufacturer’s recommendation) is silly if you have dual vacuum pumps or a standby vacuum system or a backup electric attitude indicator. If a vacuum pump failure doesn’t affect safety of flight, why not simply run it to failure and then replace it? Ditto if you have dual alternators.
Finally, consider saying no to an overhaul if an IRAN will do the job (as with Ken’s mags), and consider saying no to replacing anything that can be repaired instead.
The art of saying no is definitely an acquired skill, but one that can save you a small fortune in reduced maintenance costs once you get the hang of it. Like any acquired skill, practice makes perfect.