Pilotage: Fuel, flying, and the future

May 1, 2009

Fuel, flying, and the future

Mark R. Twombly writes from Southwest Florida, where he enjoys abundant VFR weather.

The fuel computer showed 73 gallons used, 63 remaining, when I shut down. I didn’t have time to top the tanks—my son was home on spring break with a friend, and I was eager to get home myself in time for dinner—so I quickly tucked the Aztec in the hangar and left the airport. I returned a couple of days later, cleaned the bugs off the leading edges, tidied up the interior, then pulled the airplane out and taxied over to the self-serve pump. At our airport, self-serve avgas is 30 cents less a gallon than when you call the FBO to ask one of the line guys to fuel the airplane for you from the truck. With me topping off the airplane’s four tanks, I’d save $21.90. Not bad for a few minutes of easy work on my part, an extra one-tenth on the Hobbs, and probably no more of a carbon footprint than if I’d called for the truck. If I pump at least 1,500 gallons into the Aztec over the course of a year, as I expect to, that’s an attention-getting $450 saved. Even better!

Just before inserting the credit card in the reader, I glanced over at the avfuel sign to check the current price: $2.63 a gallon. Wow! That’s less than half of what it cost back in those dark days of 2008 when the price of a barrel of oil was climbing faster than a lightly loaded Aztec at best rate. I could get very used to paying $2.63 for a gallon of 100LL.

The next day my wife and I stopped at a gas station to fill her car, and the premium grade was $2.49 a gallon. This was for self-serve, which was the only option, of course. A station across the street advertised the same brand of gas for $2.55 a gallon.

It seems to me that, historically, 100LL avgas has cost from $1 to $2 or more per gallon than premium-grade mogas. Now I’m seeing a difference of less than 15 cents. Sure, I can find premium mogas for less than $2.49 a gallon, but even at 25 or 30 cents difference the narrowing of the gap between the price of mogas and avgas really is remarkable.

When fuel was at its most expensive, it accounted for about one-third of the total, fully loaded (maintenance, engine reserves, refurbishment, insurance, hangar, charts, supplies, et cetera) hourly cost of flying the Aztec. With the price I just paid at the self-serve pump, avgas is down to 19 percent of the fully loaded hourly cost. In other words, the airplane costs about 17 percent less to fly today than it did when fuel was approaching the price of bottled water.

So here’s the question: If avgas is so cheap relative to recent history, why isn’t general aviation flying more? If my favorite restaurant cut its menu prices 17 percent, we’d be eating there more often. Mogas certainly is cheaper these days, and, here in Florida at least, the crush of traffic would have you believe that happy days are here again.

Fuel isn’t the only thing about flying that is less expensive than it was a short time ago, either. After years of appreciating, selling prices for used aircraft have taken a dive. The goods and services we buy—parts and shop rates, for example—may not have come down in price, but they are stable. As for avionics, a buck can buy a ton more capability today than in the past.

So I ask again: Why aren’t we flying more?

OK, it’s a silly question. Very few things are as they were just a couple of years ago. Most of us are still working, still bringing home the bacon, but maybe there’s not quite as much bacon in the bag. Or, we’re uncertain about where things are headed for us personally. So we’re cutting back, and if flying is a discretionary activity, it’s probably on the casualty list. Nothing new there. Flying has always been a sensitive barometer of the overall economy.


If avgas is so cheap relative to recent history, why isn’t general aviation flying more?

I’ll rephrase the question: When the economy improves, will general aviation flying bounce back in equal measure? We would all like to think so, but the question can only be answered one pilot, one aircraft owner at a time.

Personally, I fully expect to be flying more. Even though I sold my interest in an Aztec a year ago because I no longer have the same business need for an airplane, I began flying another Aztec for a small company. Now I’m logging more Aztec time than ever before, and as things get better I’m sure the hours will increase. I also hope to get back into some Part 135 and Part 91 business-jet flying that ended when the local economy got sucked into a black hole.

I hope also to do more personal, fun flying in seaplanes, gliders, LSAs—the options are many and alluring—especially when my son, who is now back at college finishing up his sophomore year, graduates. He’s the fourth and last. I’m looking forward to the day when the relentless bills for tuition, rent, food, and books finally come to an end. The effect on my budget will be like taxiing up to the self-serve pump, glancing over at the avgas sign, and seeing the words, “No charge.”

E-mail the author at mrtwombly@gmail.com.