Pondering fuel prices
September 1, 2018
A joke question that I have heard more times than I care to admit, when posed to a student, is “What keeps an airplane in the air?” The answer: “Money”.
One of the most convenient technology advances for those of us who fly piston driven aircraft is the self-serve pump. Those of my vintage (old geezer) recall the days when we had to plan ahead when making a cross country trip, making sure that the fixed base operator (FBO) was open at the time we would be needing fuel and, God forbid, if we landed after hours we would need to call someone out from town to operate the pump (for an additional fee). In the days before cell phones and unlimited calling we would often be faced with “long distance” charges on our rotary dial phone (this is now dating me). When airports and municipalities made the upgrade to self-service fuel stations the world opened up significantly. Now we can land pretty much at any time of the day and refuel. This has been wonderful.
Another advance for us to take advantage of is the publishing of fuel prices at airports so that we know what we will be paying when we choose a refuel stop. With programs like ForeFlight we can peruse our options even while in flight and plan our stops so as to minimize the hit on our wallet. One puzzling thing that has come from this is the wide variation in prices at these venues. I’m not just talking about a little bit of change, I’m talking about some pretty wide variations! I just called my local FBO at KANE and found that the price per gallon, delivered, is $5.49. The price at the self-serve pump at KANE (also owned by the FBO) is $5.29. Compare this to Staples (KSAZ) where the self-serve is $3.99 per gallon. For my super cub (38 gallon capacity), this would be a $50 difference in self-serve. For a Cessna 210 the difference would be $114. Not exactly chump change.
Why the difference? I was given an explanation by the manager of a local FBO as he lectured me about how much more care is given by the FBO when receiving fuel from the supplier, hence providing a “safer” product. He implied that the fuel at places like Staples or Buffalo was less safe. I have to call bs on that one. I understand that the luxury of having line personnel to refuel our aircraft will cost more, and many of us are willing to pay that. But why the discrepancy in self-serve and an airport monopoly? Airports that choose to offer competitive prices certainly draw in pilots who find it worth the hassle of landing at these airports. I think it likely that it makes it more attractive to do business at these airports, and that this will offset the lower profits realized by the community for fuel purchases.
We are grateful for the choices we have, and for the freedom of flight that we enjoy. Let’s work together to keep it that way!