David R. Henderson  

Airplane Repo: Paean to Private Property

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While channel surfing recently, I came across "Airplane Repo" on Discovery. It is what its name implies: it weaves together stories, typically about three, of people whose job is to repossess airplanes. Based on about 6 cases I've seen, typically the owner has defaulted on the loan used to buy the plane, and the lien holder, usually a bank, gives the repo person a hefty fee for recovering the plane. The planes can range from small Cessnas worth in the low 6 digits to Citation jets worth about $3 million.

There's often adventure. In one case, the hopping mad "owner" showed up in his truck after the repo guys had taken the plane out of the hangar and the repo guys narrowly escaped getting beat up. In another case, once the plane was in the air, the pilot discovered that the radio needed to contact air traffic control at a busy airport did not work.

But what I really like is the implicit premise of the show: people who own property have a right to recover it from the people who don't. "Airplane Repo" is a hymn to private property.

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CATEGORIES: Property Rights

COMMENTS (13 to date)
mike davis writes:

Since I love airplanes I love the show too. But I was very troubled by what I saw, precisely because I saw a casual disregard for property rights. First, it wasn't at all clear from the episodes I saw that the lien holders actually had a right to the property. Maybe they did but we just had to take their word for it. Second, other property rights were violated in repossessing the aircraft. Most of the planes were in leased hangers and the repo guys were quite willing to break locks or doors to gain access. Finally, the aircraft were not operated in a safe manner following the repo. All aircraft require a thorough preflight inspection. For a complex aircraft like the jets, this can talk significant amounts of time, even for people who fly the thing every day and know its history. Most ferry pilots spend several hours with a jet before taking it for the first time. The repo guys were all about a quick getaway. Operating an aircraft recklessly violates the property rights of people who are put at risk.

Stuff like this raises the issue of limits to libertarianism. I know there are lots of thoughtless faux-libertarians, whose whole schtick is complaining about government. And I am pretty sure there are some thoughtful anarchist-libertarians who question the role of the state in almost everything, including the enforcement of property rights. Repos must happen, but they should happen in a more orderly manner than the show demonstrates.

It is fun to watch though.

Yes, this show can provide a good example of the meaning of private property.

But let me add something for readers who may ready to take one more step into libertarianism. I claim that the tension in the show is a consequence of government's ham-handed intervention in property law. The government offers courts and marshals which should supposedly enforce property law. But these government offices work slowly. Sometimes government-courts do not work at all unless they are pushed with great legal expense. So the people who are being robbed, the creditors, seek other ways to achieve law. The best alternative the creditors can find has some danger. But, for the amount of money at stake, the creditors can hire workers willing to face that danger. Thus, the entertaining show.

If courts were private I would expect them to be more efficient. If courts were more efficient, creditors would feel less pressure to adopt somewhat-dangerous alternatives. Readers with interest may find books, by Bruce Benson and Edward Stringham.

David R. Henderson writes:

@mike davis,
Funny you mention that. I was just taking a "channel-surfing" break this afternoon, while working on a paper and found another episode. What do you know? I saw exactly what you talked about wrt to breaking into hangars. Also huge risk to others while the guy took off in a jet without avionics and low on fuel. Touche.
@Richard O. Hammer,
Good point.

Steve Z writes:

You can legally repo property if and only if it doesn't cause a breach of the peace. It does not sound like the actions in the show are always above-board.

I watched a couple of episodes of this program today, and it seems obvious that these are re-creations of events, not 'as it happens'.

Insight writes:

"re-creations of events"

Exactly. The show is just fake, like most "reality" TV.

Read the fine print at the end. "Portions may be re-enacted" or something to that effect is always there.

john hare writes:

I haven't seen the show as I have chosen to spend the last several years without television. What I can relate to though is the frustration of a legal owner wants that property back.

I have recently been somewhat involved in an eviction of a tenant that refused to pay rent or move. The costs are looking toward a thousand dollars in legal fees and such to get him out. That doesn't include lost use of the property or the potential damage that some renters inflict on the way out. As far as I can tell, the rents for this particular type property average 20%+ higher than they should because of tenants like this.

A larger problem is that there is little to no incentive for landlords to buy or build properties for very low income people. I could easily build comfortable and safe, if cramped and Spartan, rental properties that I could rent profitably for $200.00 a month if the codes, deed restrictions, impact fees, and lack of landlords rights would be adjusted for the project. Since this type of accommodation won't happen, poor people will be driven towards government apartments, or other "assistance". Even suggesting this seriously in public would draw the fire of people suggesting I want to condemn the poor to shantytowns.

David R. Henderson writes:

@john hare,
Well said.
You write, "I could easily build comfortable and safe, if cramped and Spartan, rental properties that I could rent profitably for $200.00 a month if the codes, deed restrictions, impact fees, and lack of landlords rights would be adjusted for the project."
That's astounding. What city or town is this?

Mr. Econotarian writes:

It is generally understood that this show is a complete fabrication. On discussion boards, knowledgable folks say that airplanes are never repossessed like cars are. It is not a cloak-and-dagger effort, but done calmly in the light of day. Others have said that their plane (not in collection) was rented out for an episode, so even the planes are not actual planes being repossessed.

Mark V Anderson writes:

@john hare.

That is pretty incredible. If what you say is correct, the entire low income housing industry is a scam.

I would like more information. Like David, I'd be curious where you are, since housing costs vary wildly around the country. But I'd also like to know what codes you are talking about that need to be adjusted. Obviously one could provide cheap housing if one skips running water and electricity. I presume you mean less vital needs than those code requirements?

libfree writes:


As someone who has to repossess his vehicles on a regular basis, I feel a lot of sympathy for people that have to do these jobs. Its really hard and generally involves angry people who don't agree with the "property rights" involved. For most people, that car outside is mine and it doesn't matter to them that a bank has a lien on it. I have no doubt that the TV show is faked but I also know that people will go to large lengths to hide property from banks and repo guys when they default. I work on an airport and watched some planes get repo'd a couple of months back. It was not pretty.

john hare writes:

David R. Henderson writes:

@john hare,
Well said.
You write, "I could easily build comfortable and safe, if cramped and Spartan, rental properties that I could rent profitably for $200.00 a month if the codes, deed restrictions, impact fees, and lack of landlords rights would be adjusted for the project."
That's astounding. What city or town is this?

It could be done in about any town. I am in Winter Haven, Florida. (Legoland, was Cypress Gardens is in town.)

Since I am in concrete construction, I think in terms of a single piece structure built with the flying form technique used in motels and prisons. Efficiency apartment layout similar to motels. Bare concrete floors, walls, and ceilings.

An alternate that most should be able to relate to is a single wide mobile home of about 12'x40'. If mass produced quantities of a single no frills model were ordered, it should be possible to get them down to under $10,000.00 or so each. Clay roads and minimal extra facilities could get the payment cost down to the point that $200.00 a month rent would leave some profit.

john hare writes:

@ Mark V Anderson,

Minimum square footage requirements.
Engineered drawings for well understood structures.
Impact fees into the several thousands.
CYA overkill on structural requirements, while letting the "cookie cutters" skimp.
Multiple inspections to supposedly insure quality.
Zoning restrictions.

And so on with each well intended requirement making it just that much more difficult to build inexpensively. I don't agree that low income housing is a scam, just a rational result of perverse incentives from multiple directions.

Think of a simple cabin in the woods with no required permits or inspections. You could get by with one bathroom, a kitchenette of appliances and shelves, and handful of lights and outlets, and a door and window. A similar concept is only theoretically possible in suburbia.

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