In the last few months, I’ve had several inquiries from King Air owners regarding high-cost maintenance invoices. Most of these guys are new to King Air ownership and their pilots (if they have one) are newbies too. Some sent me their shop invoices for review and I regret to say that I found examples of overcharging. It was clear to me that the shops involved took advantage of these inexperienced owners.
Please, if you are a high-time King Air pilot or a savvy King Air owner, go ahead and turn the page. I don’t want to bore you old timers with the basics. And if you’re a King Air mechanic or shop owner, bear with me. I don’t like to criticize aircraft maintenance shops. It’s a tough business – a life-or-death business, in fact – and the hurdles are many. The list of challenges faced every day by an aircraft maintenance shop would fill this magazine to the brim. But at this moment, I’m advocating for the owner and/or pilot that is new to the world of King Airs.
Are you Part 91?
A King Air owner going through Phase Inspections for the first time since purchasing his King Air got an estimate from the shop, but when the final bill came, it was double the estimated amount. He was stunned. He compared the quote with the invoice and noted many differences. Was the shop stretching things to their advantage? Or was this normal King Air maintenance? He gave me a call.
The first thing that grabbed my attention were the overhauls on the overspeed governors. This invoice item included outside services, shop labor for R+R (repair and return), plus shipping. All of it (about $3,700) was totally unnecessary. King Airs have Woodward prop overspeed governors. Their overhaul schedule is laid out in Woodward Service Bulletin 33580-M. The overspeed governors have a 6,500-hour TBO (Time Before Overhaul) with continuous use. If use is not continuous, the TBO is six years. The criteria for continuous use is 10 hours per month minimum (or 120 hours per year).
But remember, it’s a Service Bulletin (SB). Part 91 operators need only comply with Airworthiness Directives (ADs) and inspections. Even if a Service Bulletin is labeled “Mandatory,” it is not required for Part 91 operators. Any shop insisting that you, a Part 91 operator, must comply with a Service Bulletin either has a greedy eye on your wallet or they’re ignorant. Either way, you don’t want them working on your King Air.
I saw in the records that this King Air had its prop and overspeed governors overhauled in 2013. The only way these overspeed governors would need to be overhauled again in 2019 would be if the aircraft was Part 135 and not in continuous service at some point since 2013. At the time of purchase, the prop and overspeed governors were within TBO limits; and the new owner, going forward, didn’t have to worry about the application of the Woodward SB because he was Part 91.
The Conference Call
A conference call was scheduled between me and the shop. The overspeed governors and the Woodward SB came up immediately. The shop said there was a year of inactivity after the 2013 overhauls, so they had to apply the six-year calendar limit and send them for overhaul. And I said, “He’s Part 91. The Service Bulletin doesn’t apply.”
They fumbled a bit, then said, “Well, we put safety first, so we maintain Part 91 aircraft to the higher standard of Part 135.” (I’m staring right at the Woodward SB and thinking, “Hmmm, if they were truly applying 135 standards to this aircraft, then why didn’t they do the prop governors as well? They’re both subject to the six-year TBO if usage is not continuous…”). This was a crock of excrement.
Consider this: If a shop is going to charge the customer extra to maintain their aircraft at Part 135 standards, shouldn’t that be disclosed to the customer beforehand? The whole thing was hinky. The shop wouldn’t back down. Their last salvo was classic deflection – blame the customer: “We put the overspeed governor overhauls on his estimate and he approved it.”
That’s when I decided to write this article. Are you Part 91? If so, then you don’t need to worry about prop or overspeed governor overhauls. You need not comply with Service Bulletins, even mandatory ones. If a shop tells you otherwise, walk away. Find another shop. They’re out there.
Get an Estimate
Let’s say you have Phase Inspections coming due. You need an estimate. If you have a maintenance tracking spreadsheet you can email it to the shop you are considering. You can do this with several shops to compare quotes. These quotes show you the estimated cost for the required inspections and the usual costs for compliance They won’t include the remedy of squawks found on inspection.
The aforementioned owner got an estimate, but it was a mishmash. It had squawks on it that were already remedied. For example, on the estimate they put 1.5 hours to drill and extract stripped or frozen hardware from landing gear panels. This is something you don’t find until you do the inspection.
The estimate also said the battery failed the capacity test and been replaced. Another suspicious one, as the battery was barely a year old. It’s highly unlikely it would fail the cap check. I suspect the shop forgot to top charge the battery beforehand, thus wasting $3,500 of the customer’s money. How clever of them to put in a new battery, then put it on the estimate and get owner approval after the fact.
A word about logbooks: Whenever a King Air came to my shop for the first time, I insisted they bring the logbooks, and I pounced on them as soon as they rolled onto my ramp. I don’t care how many CAMP reports and spreadsheets they sent in advance. I had to see those logbooks with my own eyes, then I made my own maintenance status sheet to show what was due now, what had been overlooked (if anything), and what was coming due in the future.
However, if you just had a pre-buy inspection with a Phase 1-4 a year ago, then the task of assessing the maintenance status of your King Air is much easier. It won’t take long to put together an estimate for a Phase 1 & 2 plus special inspections. I’m not saying a shop shouldn’t look at the logbooks, I’m saying the job of putting an estimate together should go relatively fast. Don’t forget your own list of squawks. Customer squawks can be included on the estimate if you submit them. Just remember that some things are impossible to estimate before a mechanic gets in there to troubleshoot and evaluate the situation.
As a new owner, I’ll assume you’re not conversant with King Air maintenance requirements, so I recommend you consult someone who is. Bottom line: You need to understand what you are looking at – your bottom line depends on it.
Squawk Approval Required
At this point your King Air is in the shop, the panels are opened up and the inspections are underway. Anything that deviates from normal, whether large or small, is written up as a squawk. How these squawks are remedied can go one of two ways. The less common approach is where all inspections are done first, with no fixing of squawks along the way. The list of squawks is submitted for your approval first. This is how a pre-buy inspection unfolds. Nothing is fixed until all inspections are completed and the squawks are approved. The squawks are divided into two categories: Airworthy (for the seller) and Optional (for the buyer at their discretion).
The more common approach (and not a pre-buy) is where routine squawks are fixed as they go along. The mechanic inspects, observes a discrepancy and writes it up, fixes the routine ones, and keeps working down the inspection checklist. It’s a more efficient use of time. A good shop keeps the parts that are consumed at Phase Inspections in stock.
Communication is Vital
Some squawks are a big deal; they’re labor-intensive and/or the parts are expensive. They require troubleshooting and maybe research. It’s probably airworthy, and the shop knows it must be addressed, but these squawks must be run by the owner, or whoever is designated for squawk approval. Decisions need to be made, and you, the owner (or your agent) must be consulted.
Should you get an exchange part or buy outright new? Should you stick with the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) or go with PMA (Parts Manufacturer Approval)? Can it be deferred, and if so, should you? How much time will it take? Is this an opportunity to upgrade, and if so, should you? Last but not least: How much more is this going to cost?
Get Good Advice
This is where inexperienced King Air owners can benefit from an expert that goes to bat for you. It all can be done by phone and email, it doesn’t take a huge amount of time, and it will make the most of your maintenance dollars in the end. The above-mentioned owner got hit from every direction. Besides the overspeed governors and the battery ($7,200 and counting), he needed the end play inspection and lube on all three actuators. This comes due every 30 months on King Airs with mechanical gear. It’s a very common task. The shop estimated 20.4 hours of labor but spent
40 hours – double the amount – and never alerted the owner that they hit a snag.
Worse yet, they put rigging the gear into a different squawk and spent another 38.8 hours on it. Rigging the gear is part of the actuator end play and lube task! Once the actuators are reinstalled, rigging is a couple of minor adjustment on the switches. Easy-peasy (but apparently not for this shop!). In the end, they spent 60 hours total on the actuators and rigging the gear. It should have been no more than 24 hours. What took so long? Why was the owner not informed?
Review the Invoice
No aircraft owner should ever get a final invoice that is double the estimate and have no idea it was coming. As squawks come up, the shop gets squawk approvals from you or your agent. Everyone keeps a running tally, if only in their head. Ballpark estimates of the bottom line are usually discussed at every turn.
The final invoice may be more than you wanted it to be, but it shouldn’t be a total shock. Shipping charges, core charges, miscellaneous parts and consumables always drive the final amount higher than you thought. Nevertheless, all the big items should have been discussed before completion of the job.
When you get that final invoice, pair it with the estimate to see where they align or diverge. You should have emails, text messages or phone notes to explain the increases and overages. There are always squawks found on inspection that are impossible to predict in advance. That’s just the nature of the beast. Make sure to examine parts prices, shipping costs, consumables and miscellaneous charges. By all means, don’t let core charges fall through the cracks. Make a firm note to look for core charge refunds and stay in touch with the shop on this issue.
Feel free to ask questions. You need the education. Just try not to be the annoying customer that fights tooth and nail on every single line item. If you have a good shop it’s important not to alienate them.
When I examine an invoice, I am looking for things that shouldn’t be there. The usual suspects are excess labor charges, parts prices out of whack, and double-dipping (charging for the same task more than once). On the aforementioned invoice, I immediately saw the overspeed governor overhauls – they shouldn’t have been there. Although the shop’s estimate didn’t mention the Woodward Service Bulletin, I was very familiar with it and knew it didn’t apply in this circumstance.
Unfortunately, there’s more: I found the shop’s R+R labor on the fuel nozzles excessive. I found double-dipping on the lubrication of the shimmy dampener bolt and on the propeller inspections. The wildly excessive charge to rig the landing gear was also double-dipping since that’s part of the actuator end play task, which as I noted previously, was an excessive charge in itself.
There were other issues on that invoice (so many I am sick of talking about it), but one that really galled me was 15 hours to research the logbooks and make an Excel spread sheet to track maintenance. Did they mention this to the owner in advance? It was not on their estimate. Remember, when the owner bought this King Air a year ago, he had a pre-buy inspection done during which he paid for logbook research and an updated spreadsheet for maintenance status. I assume he provided this to the shop.
Fifteen hours is egregious in my book. I conduct pre-buys all the time. I estimate 5-10 hours for logbook research and rarely charge more than that. Only an extreme case like a really old aircraft, or logbooks in total disarray, or records not translated from a foreign language would merit charging more than 10 hours. Granted, the shop only charged $90/hour for the research instead of their $120/hour shop rate, but still that was another $1,350. It all adds up.
This was not the first time I was asked to review an invoice and then duke it out over the phone with the shop. It’s not my favorite thing to do, because I’m not confrontational, but I like to see justice done (cliché but true). I hesitated to write this article because the suggestion to seek expert advice looks like I’m shamelessly promoting myself. My wife and others will tell you I am the last person to toot my own horn.
The point is this: Aircraft maintenance is expensive and complicated, but it’s a vital part of owning and operating a King Air. I love King Airs – they’re reliable, versatile and one of the greatest success stories in general aviation.
I hope every King Air owner “finds their King Air groove” and understands what a great aircraft they have.