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Why do airplane rental companies charge per flight hour (using hobbs time), instead of either MX hours (tach time) or based on the amount of fuel used?

Wouldn't a 3-hour long cross-country flight be much cheaper than three hours spent in pattern work?

In my opinion, rental rates would seem more logical if they are based on MX time.

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    $\begingroup$ cause motor and general maintenance and fuel are time based rather than flight based $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Jan 7 '15 at 0:40
  • $\begingroup$ I think @Sponge Bob should have asked Hobbs versus tach? $\endgroup$ – newmanth Jan 7 '15 at 0:43
  • $\begingroup$ @newmanth That is what I meant to ask. Tach=MX time and flight time=hobbs. Is that not correct? $\endgroup$ – Keegan Jan 7 '15 at 0:47
  • $\begingroup$ @SpongeBob yes, that's correct. a hobbs is optional, but even the lowly 40-year-old Citabria I used to fly had tach time $\endgroup$ – rbp Jan 7 '15 at 0:52
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    $\begingroup$ Similar Question: What is the difference between Hobbs Time and Tach Time? $\endgroup$ – Farhan Jan 7 '15 at 14:24
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In the US most General Aviation rentals are "Wet Hobbs Time" -- You are billed based on the actual clock time the engine was running (in tenths of an hour), and fuel/oil are included in the rental price.

This is attractive to renters because of the simplicity: You don't have to pay the FBO separately for the fuel, oil, and aircraft, and you're basically paying for the amount of "clock time" you spent in the plane.
It's easy to understand, especially for new students who may not quite grasp the concept of how the recording tachometer measures "time".

Hobbs billing is attractive to the FBO as well, for different reasons:

  • Rentals are typically blocked out by clock hours ("10 AM to 2 PM").
    Since booking is clock time billing based on clock time (Hobbs hours) makes sense.
  • In practice the two numbers are usually close (and when they're not the error tends to favor the FBO).

Let's look at your "Tach vs. Hobbs" scenarios (for the sake of simplicity let's assume both flights are three "clock hours" chock-to-chock):

Pattern Work

Pattern work consists of three basic phases:

  1. Takeoff (full throttle, high RPM - Tach runs faster than Hobbs)
  2. Circuit (low power, low RPM - Tach runs slower than Hobbs)
  3. Descent & Landing (near idle power, very low RPM - Tach runs MUCH slower than Hobbs)
    There might be a taxi in there for full-stop practice, but you'll be close to idle there too.

If we average this out over three hours of pattern work (and assuming you and your instructor don't commit suicide to break the monotony) the Tach hour meter will be reading a number much lower than the Hobbs meter.
In this scenario you might have 2.25 tach hours for your 3 Hobbs / Clock hours.

3-hour Cross Country

A cross country consists of 5 phases:

  1. Takeoff/Climb (full throttle, high RPM - Tach runs faster than Hobbs)
  2. Cruise (moderate throttle, moderate RPM - Tach and Hobbs run about the same speed)
  3. Descent (moderate-low throttle, moderate-low RPM - Tach may be a bit slower than Hobbs)
  4. Circuit/Approach (low power, low RPM - Tach runs slower than Hobbs)
  5. Landing (near idle power, very low RPM - Tach runs MUCH slower than Hobbs)

If we assume Phases 1 and 3 take about the same time they roughly cancel each other out. Phase 2 (Cruise) is a wash too, so we're left with two brief periods where the tach is running noticeably slower than the Hobbs (the pattern and landing at the destination).
In this scenario you might have 2.85 Tach Hours for your 3 Hobbs / Clock hours.

In both of these scenarios the FBO comes out ahead of the game -- they're billing you for 3 hours of time, but their maintenance cycle is based on the tach. This might be enough to squeeze another day or two of profitable flying out of an airframe before it's next annual or 100-hour inspection.


There are scenarios where you can "beat" the Tach clock, but most of them involve being downright abusive to the aircraft/engine. For example if you flew that 3 hour cross country at low altitude and full throttle (very high RPM) you might rack up 3.3 tach hours for your 3 Hobbs hours. The FBO is basically stuck eating that maintenance expense.
Along similar lines when renter pilots abuse an engine (for example by leaving the mixture knob full rich for the whole flight) the tach time doesn't always tell the whole maintenance story - the mechanic's time cleaning the plugs because the next renter couldn't get through a runup has to be paid for somehow.

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  • $\begingroup$ Note that it's also possible to do pattern work and have the tach time equal to or slightly ahead of the hobbs time -- it all depends what portion of your flying is spent in the takeoff/climb phase. I did much my training in an anemic Cherokee 140, and my instructor was not a small man. The two of us and full fuel put us within a few pounds of gross weight, and on warm days climbing to pattern altitude for another circuit could take quite some time! $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Jan 7 '15 at 20:48
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The fuel-to-air mixture in aircraft piston engines is mostly set with manual controls. A lean mixture will result in higher cylinder head temperatures and increase the risk of detonation, preignition and overheating of exhaust valves. This means that a pilot who is charged according to fuel consumption will use a different mixture setting than a pilot who is charged by the hour. To conserve fuel, the mixture can be set leaner than what would be best for preserving the engine.

Basically, piston aircraft are charged by the hour to generate the right incentives for setting the fuel-to-air mixture. Also, as ratchet freak mentions correctly in the comments, the secondary cost are mostly proportional to operating time.

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  • $\begingroup$ You don't mention hobbs time vs. tach time however. And the premise of the question is that hobbs time is used more often though tach time should generate better incentives. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Jan 7 '15 at 12:54
  • $\begingroup$ Are you not already charged based on fuel consumption by having to top up the tanks when returning the plane, or is that only when renting a car? (IANAP - I am not a pilot) $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Jan 7 '15 at 14:24
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    $\begingroup$ @FreeMan A common arrangement is for airplanes to rent “wet,” that is, inclusive of fuel costs. $\endgroup$ – Greg Bacon Jan 7 '15 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ @JanHudec: Yes, I only focused on the aspect of charging based on fuel used, the second question. But I don't see much of a difference in hobbs and tach time between a cross-country flight and pattern work. After all, flight speed is lower in pattern work and so should be tach time. I think the premise of the first question is wrong. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Jan 7 '15 at 16:11
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    $\begingroup$ Also I always saw wet rentals (no matter how you charge) as a disincentive to set the mixture properly: What does the renter care how much fuel they're throwing away or how dirty the plugs get? It's paid for anyway! $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Jan 7 '15 at 20:58

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