October 1, 2002
By Phil Boyer
Phil Boyer has served as president of AOPA since 1991.
While more unnecessary restrictions were placed on general aviation around the one-year anniversary of the tragedy of September 11, 2001, almost all flight activity has been restored. Your association continues to work to eliminate temporary flight restrictions in certain areas and to restore normal GA operations to four airports around Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, student pilot starts have never been higher. Despite the FAA's projection for gloom and doom made last spring, which AOPA challenged as being too low, the latest eight-month figures indicate that new student pilot certificate issuances are at their highest since 1993.
Unlike trade organizations, which many of you depend on to support your business activities, AOPA is an individual member group. In a sense, we represent the consumers of general aviation products and services, with particular emphasis on Congress and the regulatory agencies that affect our flying activities.
Post September 11 a group of very small aviation businesses has not financially recovered. As consumers of aviation products we depend on their services almost every time we fly. They have their own trade organization yet many are so small they can't afford the dues. Many of the business owners are AOPA members who have chosen their profession because they love flying and airplanes. If you haven't figured it out by now, I'm referring to the local fixed-base operators (FBOs) at most GA airports, many running an adjacent flight school and maintenance facility. Most have yet to recover from the grounding of VFR flights and other restrictions over a significant period last year.
Often pilots have a love/hate relationship with these operators. Your association gets involved on behalf of individual members in disputes over high rates, maintenance issues, and rental prices. We will continue to represent you with regard to proven inequities with FBOs, but we must realize that their economic health is important to us all. I hear from members who no longer have an FBO at their field, so local fuel service, airport management, and improvements are gone. Too often the members decide to move their airplanes. As the number of based aircraft decreases, the airport sponsor (usually the city or county) often decides to close the facility completely.
Aircraft owners have seen increases in insurance rates, but they are nothing compared to changes in FBO insurance. One family-owned business cited a $60,000 annual premium increase, with the deductible rising from $5,000 to a whopping $50,000. This is a business that has not filed a claim in 14 years.
AOPA has historically opposed ramp fees, but this particular operator has a "facility fee," which starts at $5 for a typical GA airplane with the first 30 minutes free. After that, the fee is waived with any-size fuel purchase, even a gallon. Yet, very recently a Learjet pilot hit with the $50 fee for his aircraft stated, "You don't want to roll that fuel truck for a $2.72 one-gallon fuel purchase, do you?" The FBO owner answered in the affirmative. Often he hears pilots say, "I don't need anything." But they head right for the air-conditioned restroom. "Who pays for the toilet paper and the electric bill?" the owner asks himself. At the same time he'll be the first to admit that if someone is running late, perhaps picking up his mother-in-law at the FBO to take her back to her own home, the circumstances don't warrant the small charge.
Many airports and FBOs offer pilots courtesy services, such as cars, a lounge, and state-of-the-art flight planning and briefing equipment — and the coffee pot is almost always on. My wife's family lives near an airport in central Illinois where rental cars aren't readily available. Over the years we've grown to depend on the courtesy car to get into town, and we often use it for up to two days as our only transportation. A few years back they handed me the keys but told me to watch out since the alternator had been acting up. Not wanting to risk a dead battery, for under $100 I had a rebuilt alternator installed. (Thank heavens it was a car and not an airplane!) Even though the old car has since been replaced, they have never forgotten that small favor, proving it was worth the dollars and time spent.
Wherever I go, whatever airplane I am flying, I always plan to purchase "courtesy fuel" at any stop, since I know I will almost surely use some FBO services. Flying the Cessna 172 to Winchester, Virginia, takes just 30 minutes from my home base. But I make sure there is room in the tanks for some fuel, since I know the only way to get into town is to borrow the FBO's car. And, I always make sure I return the car with a full tank of gas.
For years I have been a strong advocate of courtesy fuel purchases. Now, more than ever, they are essential. The very health of the support industry for GA depends on it. The FBO owner quoted earlier says these fuel purchases keep the lights on at his facility. Often he is asked, "Well, if I buy fuel, do I have to pay for overnight parking?" His response is to cite the hotel the pilot will stay at that evening. "You'll be paying $100 for the room, and they charge $10 for parking. Should we be any different?"
AOPA defends fair and reasonable charges for aviation on a daily basis, and the federal grants at some 2,200 public-use airports in the United States contain these very words. However, making sure FBOs are there in the future, by allowing them to turn a reasonable profit, is in the best interest of all of general aviation. Next time you land, hopefully you'll consider purchasing courtesy fuel — and keep in mind that my FBO friend terms it survival fuel.
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