I was disturbed to learn once of an off-airport landing by the customer of a well-regarded flight school. Fortunately no one was hurt, but one of the flight school’s beautifully maintained Cessnas was totaled in the landing.
As I understand it, a renter had booked the aircraft for an overnight flight with several stops. On the final 120-mile leg home, the aircraft ran out of fuel, resulting in a forced landing some 15 miles short of the home airport.
According to the school’s training manager, the airplane was being flown by a certificated pilot who apparently made a number of flight planning errors, one being calculation of fuel burn strictly based on cruise performance charts, without factoring in time-to-climb and fuel-to-climb.
Even with those adjustments, however, the renter’s calculations did not allow for enough endurance to complete the flight home, much less for any reserve. With only one airport offering fuel anywhere near the route home, this pilot had limited options on takeoff.
Let me add one additional element for consideration. When asked by the NTSB investigator why he did not refuel prior to the final flight leg home, the pilot apparently replied, “Because the fuel was too expensive there.”
This flight school uses the common policy that fuel purchased at other airports will be reimbursed only up to the current price at the home airport. In this particular case, cost of fuel at the pilot’s last stop before home may have been as high as 40 cents per gallon more than at the home field.
Would this customer have done things differently, knowing it wouldn’t cost one thin dime to gas up? Why else would the pilot not have fueled for that last leg? We’ll never know for sure, but the question certainly is thought provoking.
While the lapse in judgment suffered by this particular pilot suggests bigger problems than fuel reimbursement, it does raise interesting issues. Do our customers fully comprehend our fuel reimbursement policies? Do new renters understand how fuel cost is deducted from the aircraft rental rate, and that there is no legitimate economic reason not to refuel?
If, like this flight school, you reimburse only up to home-field fuel price, do you educate your customers as to just how small that cost really is? Forty cents per gallon may sound like a lot for a customer to make up out of pocket. But given the small training aircraft involved, it’s doubtful this pilot saved more than a few bucks by not refueling adequately for a safe flight home, including reserve.
Jim Hackman, formerly of Cessna Pilot Centers, encourages flight schools to reimburse renters for the full cost of fuel, regardless of price. “Why even tempt pilots to make saving money part of the fueling decision?” he asks. “One flight school I worked for even provided fuel cards to their renters.”
That last suggestion raises another important issue—ensuring before departure that every solo student and rental customer has in possession some means to buy fuel, meaning an appropriate credit card or adequate cash. Maybe before handing over the keys we should ask, “How will you pay for fuel?”
Finally, there must be a policy in place for customers who find themselves needing fuel but without a way to pay for it. Sure, that can happen, given headwinds, lost cash, or a maxed-out credit card. Our customers must be taught to phone us for rescue when in a bind, not take off with marginal fuel or a mechanical problem due to concerns about how to pay the bill. These things are not obvious, especially to soloing students and newly certificated pilots, which is why we must post such policies in the lobby, incorporate them in aircraft checkouts, and explain them verbally to every student pilot and rental customer.
As for the Cessna that ran out of fuel 15 miles from home, the flight school scrambled to find a replacement to fill its busy flight schedule and faced increases in its insurance costs, all for the lack of a few dollars’ worth of fuel.
“Truthfully,” said the flight school owner, “the pilot made a number of really bad judgment errors, and we’ll never know all the causes behind them. But I’ll tell you one thing—we’ve been discussing our fuel reimbursement policy plenty since it happened, and I’m not sure what we’re going to do. I guess the question boils down to, ‘Who’s the bigger cheapskate here—the flight school or the customer?’”
This story originally appeared in a 1999 version of Flight School Business, and has been edited for currency.