Aviation Finance


Commercial aircraft, such as those operated by airlines, use more sophisticated leases and debt financing schemes. The three most common schemes for financing commercial aircraft are secured lending, operating leasing and finance leasing.

•           Secured lending

A secured loan, is a loan in which the borrower pledges some asset (e.g. a car or property) as collateral for the loan, which then becomes a secured debt owed to the creditor who gives the loan. The debt is thus secured against the collateral — in the event that the borrower defaults, the creditor takes possession of the asset used as collateral and may sell it to regain some or all of the amount originally loaned to the borrower, for example, foreclosure of a home. From the creditor's perspective, this is a category of debt in which a lender has been granted a portion of the bundle of rights to specified property. If the sale of the collateral does not raise enough money to pay off the debt, the creditor can often obtain a deficiency judgment against the borrower for the remaining amount.

•           Operating leasing

Commercial aircraft are often leased through a Commercial Aircraft Sales and Leasing (CASL) company, the two largest of which are International Lease Finance Corporation (ILFC) and GE Commercial Aviation Services (GECAS).

Operating leases are generally short-term (less than 10 years in duration), making them attractive when aircraft are needed for a start-up venture, or for the tentative expansion of an established carrier. The short duration of an operating lease also protects against aircraft obsolescence, an important consideration in many countries due to changing noise and environmental laws. In some countries where airlines may be deemed less creditworthy (e.g. the former Soviet Union), operating leases may be the only way for an airline to acquire aircraft. Moreover, it provides the flexibility to the airlines so that they can manage fleet size and composition as closely as possible, expanding and contracting to match demand.

Conversely, the aircraft's residual value at the end of the lease is an important consideration for the owner. The owner may require that the aircraft be returned in the same maintenance condition (e.g. post-C check) as it was delivered, so as to expedite turnaround to the next operator. Like leases in other fields, a security deposit is often required.

One particular type of operating lease is the wet lease, in which the aircraft is leased together with its crew. Such leases are generally on a short-term basis to cover bursts in demand, such as the Hajj pilgrimage. Unlike a charter flight, a wet-leased aircraft operates as part of the leasing carrier's fleet and with that carrier's airline code, although it often retains the livery of its owner.

US and UK accounting rules differ regarding operating leases. In the UK, some operating lease expenses can be capitalized on the company's balance sheet; in the US, operating lease expenses are generally reported as operating expenses, similarly to fuel or wages.

A related concept to the operating lease is the leaseback, in which the operator sells its own aircraft for cash, and then leases the same aircraft back from the purchaser for a periodic payment. The operating lease can afford the airlines flexibility to change their fleet size, and create a burden to the leasing companies.

•           Finance leasing

Finance leasing, also known as "capital leasing", is a longer-term arrangement in which the operator comes closer to effectively "owning" the aircraft. It involves a more complicated transaction in which a lessor, often a special purpose company (SPC) or partnership, purchases the aircraft through a combination of debt and equity financing, and then leases it to the operator. The operator may have the option to purchase the aircraft at the expiration of the lease, or may automatically receive the aircraft at the expiration of the lease.

Under American and British accounting rules, a finance lease is generally defined as one in which the lessor receives substantially all rights of ownership, or in which the present value of the minimum lease payments for the duration of the lease exceeds 90% of the fair market value of the aircraft. If a lease is defined as a finance lease, it must be counted as an asset of the company, in contrast to an operating lease which only affects the company's cash flow.

Finance leasing is attractive to the lessee because the lessee may claim depreciation deductions over the aircraft's useful life, which offset the profits from the lease for tax purposes, and deduct interest paid to those creditors who financed the purchase. This has made aircraft a popular form of tax shelter for investors, and has also made finance leasing a cheaper alternative to operating leases or secured purchasing.