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FedEx flies high: Sixth Circuit affirms deductibility of repairs.

In FedEx Corp., 2/16/05, the Sixth Circuit affirmed a district court's decision (291 FSupp2d 699 (WD TN 2003)), that the taxpayer could currently deduct off-wing maintenance costs related to engine shop visits (ESVs) for aircraft engines and auxiliary power units (APUs). The decision was very brief and expressed the court's confidence in the completeness and accuracy of the lower court's findings. It is particularly timely, given ongoing developments on capitalization issues. (For a full discussion of the district court's decision, see Shin, Tax Clinic, "Deduct or Capitalize Aircraft Engine Maintenance Costs?," TTA, February 2004, p. 77.)

Background

During 1993 and 1994, the taxpayer contracted with a third party for ESVs, an integrated process that included disassembling, cleaning, inspecting, repairing, replacing, reassembling and testing engines and APUs. The procedure required removing the engines and APUs from the aircraft; the taxpayer frequently replaced these parts with components that had recently completed the ESV process. ESVs could be scheduled or unscheduled, the latter arising from unexpected engine and APU problems.

According to industry standards, the economic useful life of a properly maintained aircraft is approximately 30 years. To enable its aircraft to remain functional during this period, the taxpayer considered scheduled and unscheduled ESVs to be necessary. In this vein, it contested the government's characterization of the engines and APUs as separate units of property. Citing industry standards, it claimed that the engine, APU and airframe were functionally interdependent; thus, the "unit of property" was the entire aircraft.

In addition to industry maintenance standards, the Federal Aviation Authority imposed strict repair and maintenance standards to ensure commercial aircraft safety. Thus, argued the taxpayer, the ESVs were needed to maintain the status quo of the aircraft.

District Court's Analysis

The district court applied Regs. Secs. 1.162-4 and 1.263(a)-1(b). According to Kegs. Secs. 1.263(a)-1(b), items are capital in nature if they add value to property, substantially prolong its useful life or adapt it to a new or different use. Conversely, under Regs. Sec. 1.162-4, the costs of incidental repairs that neither materially add to a property's value nor appreciably prolong its life, but keep it in an ordinarily efficient operating condition, may be deducted currently as an expense.

Unit of property: As a threshold matter, the district court spent considerable time determining the appropriate unit of property. Specifically, it considered Ingrain Industries, Inc., TC Memo 2000-323, and Smith, 300 F3d 1023 (9th Cir. 2002). In Ingram, the Tax Court held that a towboat operator could currently deduct the costs of cyclical towboat engine maintenance. It found the entire towboat to be the relevant property unit. Although the engines required significant periodic maintenance to attain their ultimate useful lives, the intent that they last for the towboats' lives was clear, because they (1) were acquired with the towboats (2) could be maintained without being removed from the boats and (3) did not have to be replaced regularly and periodically over the boats' lives.

In Smith, the Ninth Circuit analyzed the deductibility of the taxpayer's costs of relining the walls of aluminum-producing cells used in the aluminum smelting process. The court found that the individual cells constituted the unit of property; thus, the costs incurred to replace them were capital expenditures. It found significant the fact that each cell in the cell lining was not functionally interdependent, because the smelting process could continue with missing cells. (For a discussion, see Price and Wald, Tax Clinic, "Ninth Circuit Provides Guidance on Expense vs. Capitalize," TTA, February 2003, p. 72.)

Applying Ingram and Smith, the district court in FedEx resolved several key questions in determining the appropriate unit of property. First, it found that the taxpayer and the industry generally treated engines and APUs as part of fully assembled aircraft for purposes of acquisition, operation, maintenance and disposal. Second, it determined that their lives were co-extensive with the airframes on which they were mounted. Third, it found that they were functionally interdependent with the aircraft. Finally, the court noted that, while engines and APUs were removed from the aircraft for maintenance purposes, this fact was not dispositive when compared with the other factors mentioned above.

Incidental repairs: The district court next addressed whether the ESVs constituted incidental repairs. It rejected the government's argument that the term "incidental" creates an independent test of magnitude separate from the addition of value, prolongation of life or adaptation to a new use. Instead, it applied the test enunciated in Plainfield-Union Water Co., 39 TC 333 (1962), in comparing the condition of an engine or APU after an ESV to its condition after the previous ESV, not (as the government suggested) to its condition immediately preceding the ESV. In using this test, the court found that the ESVs did not materially increase the aircrafts' value, appreciably prolong their useful lives or adapt them to a new or different use. Thus, the ESV costs were deductible, not capitalizable.

Sixth Circuit's Decision

As indicated above, the Sixth Circuit has now affirmed the district court's decision. In doing so, notwithstanding a very brief discussion, the court was particularly effusive in its comments on the lower court's rationale. The fact that a circuit court has now espoused the approach described above gives it greater precedential value.

Conclusion

The Sixth Circuit's ruling substantially reinforces the analysis accepted by tax advisers that cyclical maintenance and repair costs for aircraft are generally deductible under Regs. Sec. 1.162-4. In certain circumstances, this result has been held consistently by the IRS; see Rev. Rul. 2001-4, in which certain regular maintenance visits not pursuant to "a plan of rehabilitation" were currently deductible. Given the analyses of that ruling, Ingram and FedEx, the FedEx rationale might reasonably be applied in other circumstances.

FedEx's holding should likewise affect the current IRS project to develop regulations on the application of Secs. 162 and 263 to tangible property. For example, Notice 2004-6 requested comments by March 1, 2004, on a number of issues pertinent to the treatment of repairs and maintenance. It specifically addresses several of the issues in FedEx, including the appropriate unit of property and the various standards enunciated in Regs. Secs. 1.162-4 and 1.263(a)-l(b).

Until proposed regulations or other guidance is issued, taxpayers should find support in the FedEx precedent established by the district court and unequivocally reaffirmed by the Sixth Circuit.

FROM FRENCH L. TAYLOR, II, CPA, DALLAS, TX, AND SCOTT W. VANCE, J.D., LL.M., WASHINGTON, DC
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Author:Vance, Scott W.
Publication:The Tax Adviser
Date:Jun 1, 2005
Words:1083
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