Are High Fuel Prices The Problem? $1 Avgas at Redbird May Help Us Understand

High costs are universally blamed for the decline in the numbers of people learning to fly and the overall contraction of private flying activity. It seems logical that the cost of flying is a critical factor in anyone’s decision to learn to fly, or to continue flying. But is cost the biggest constraint, or even an important factor? That’s what Redbird hopes to discover by offering avgas for $1 per gallon at its San Marcos, Texas facility for the month of October.

Redbird founder Jerry Gregoire is an interesting fellow. He considers the many theories of why personal aviation is in decline, but he is also willing to invest money in experiments to establish if any theories are correct.

Jerry founded Redbird to build lower cost high fidelity simulators in the belief that combining simulator training with actual flight instruction would make initial flight training for the private less expensive, quicker, and more effective.

To test the theory Jerry established Skyport at San Marcos to teach new pilots to fly using the simulator-flight instruction method. He calls Skyport a laboratory, not just a flight school. Skyport has been operating for about two years and so far the results seem promising. People are earning private licenses in less overall time and with fewer than average flight instruction hours and at a predictable cost.

The $1 per gallon avgas experiment is an effort to determine if people will actually fly more if the cost is reduced. At $1 a gallon the fuel at Skyport—which includes a full service FBO– is about one-sixth the average price for avgas. So, by my math, if fuel price is a direct deterrent to flying Skyport should sell 600 percent more fuel during October. In other words, pilots could fly six times as much for the same fuel cost if the price of fuel is what has been holding them back.

This is the first intentional aviation fuel cost experiment I know of, but many of us lived and flew through a totally unexpected and unwanted avgas cost upheaval in the 1970s. It started in October of 1973 when the OPEC nations put an embargo on crude oil shipped to the west.

Before the OPEC embargo avgas prices were hanging around 60 cents a gallon. Car gas cost around 35 cents. Within a few weeks the cost of avgas shot through two bucks a gallon and government rationing, for a time, threatened to crimp the supply. A significant shortage of avgas never materialized but I do remember calling ahead to FBOs to make sure they would have fuel.

The impact of the embargo lasted into the spring and summer of 1974 before oil prices declined from the peak. But avgas cost never went below $1 a gallon, at least that I found. So in less than a year avgas prices spiked, but then settled in at a point nearly double the year before.

What was the lasting result of the sudden surge in 1970s avgas prices? The beginning of the biggest boom in general aviation manufacturing and flying, that’s what. In 1975 airplane production took off  and by 1978 and 79 nearly 18,000 new airplanes were being built each year. More people were learning to fly, the pilot population was growing strongly and the boom looked like it was here to stay even though inflation raged and avgas prices continued to increase.

Obviously higher avgas prices didn’t ignite the 1970s boom in general aviation, but neither did they prevent it. Could the boom have been even greater if avgas prices hadn’t doubled earlier in the decade? That’s hard to imagine.

I am pretty confident that high fuel prices are constraining the number of hours those of us already in aviation are flying now. I know I certainly consider fuel costs before making a trip, something I didn’t do much years ago.

But are high costs, including fuel, keeping people out of personal aviation? Would more people learn to fly if it costs less? The Redbird $1 avgas experiment may help to answer that question.  There may be other reasons people aren’t learning to fly, and in many respects, that is more worrisome than simply costs.

San Marcos is located between Austin and San Antonio. October is a great month to fly in Texas. So stop by the Redbird Skyport and top off with $1 per gallon avgas. The only restriction is that the fuel must go into an airplane, not gas cans or tanker trucks.

If  Skyport sells five or six, or even more times as much fuel during October the evidence that fuel prices are a huge drag on flying will be clear. If sales volume only goes up two or three times we may need to look for another reason. The question is important enough that many aviation companies have joined Redbird to make the experiment possible. The industry needs to have evidence and this experiment seems like a good start.

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43 Responses to Are High Fuel Prices The Problem? $1 Avgas at Redbird May Help Us Understand

  1. Kayak Jack says:

    Predicting is a risky business. But, I would be surprised if cost of everything – fuel included – were the only reason for less flying. Life isn’t that simple, usually.

    Other factors affect human brings too. Time constraints – which are really NOT time constraints, but how we choose to prioritize and use our time. Weather constraints. Job requirements. Family obligations. etc. etc.

    I certainly wouldn’t say that if sales increase only 200-300% that we need to look somewhere else. We should already know that we need to look somewhere else IN ADDITION TO cost of fuel. Only when many variables are studied and analyzed, will a picture begin to emerge of how much effect each variable has, and how each key variable interrelates with the others.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see that, after studying 100-200 variables, only two or three emerge as the ones with the most powerful effects. That’s pretty standard in multi-variate analysis. You have to wash a lot of gravel to find the few nuggets of gold.

  2. Keith Bumsted says:

    Mac, asking if current fuel prices are a constraint to more GA flying is like asking if the big bear defecates in the woods! The short answer is Yes. But Skyport is going to need more finely granulated data than just sales volume in order to make sense of the experiment and draw meaningful conclusions. Running through the economics of general aviation is a bright line separating the flying that is financed and paid for with after tax personal income and the flying that is either partially or fully paid for with pre tax income. To the extent that all or most operational/maintenance costs are either reimbursed or paid by someone other than the pilot, fuel costs are going to be less of an inhibitor, just another cost of doing business, but where it competes with the groceries and the rent, or a little darlin’s college fund, the cost of flying is huge and out of reach for more and more people, and that’s before any consideration of opportunity costs. If the decision making process is rational (and a lot of it isn’t) and opportunity costs are being considered, flying and general aviation is losing out and will continue to lose in today’s economic environment.

    So, Skyport needs to find out who is buying the sale priced fuel and whether it is being financed with pre-tax or after-tax money. Chances favor the major increase going to the after-tax flyers since that type of flying is largely discretionary whereas the pre-tax funded flying tends to be more related to business needs. If that turns out to be the case, it will still be a head scratcher since the sale price of $1.00 per gallon won’t continue (and cheap fuel can’t be stockpiled) and things will go back to normal at the end of the month.

  3. What ignited the GA manufacturing boom of the 1970s was the combination of extremely high income tax rates and extremely favorable tax treatment of new GA airplane purchases (investment tax credit, double declining balance depreciation, bonus first-year depreciation) that resulted in Uncle Sam picking up literally half the cost of every new airplane purchase. Conversely, what caused the GA manufacturing collapse of the 1980s was the Reagan Administration’s campaign to slash the top income tax bracket while eliminating most of the “tax loopholes” that fueled the boom.

    The manufacturing boom of the 70s coupled with the bursting of the tax-incentive bubble in the 80s resulted in a glut of excellent used airplanes on the market and no incentive to buy new ones. It was a total game-changer, and it nearly put the GA manufacturers out of business.

    Anyone who owns an airplane knows that the fixed annual costs of ownership (hangar, insurance, annual inspections, recurrent training, depreciation or loan service, etc.) are a very large percentage of total cost of owning an airplane, unless you fly a great deal. If you’re going to bear these fixed annual costs, you’ve got to be crazy not to fly the hell out of the airplane regardless of what avgas costs.

    Then again, there’s a school of thought that says you’ve got to be crazy to own an airplane, period. I call that “the school of the J-word” because its proponents are constantly saying things like “I just can’t JUSTIFY flying my airplane from California to New York when airline tickets are so inexpensive.” Those poor bastards just don’t have a clue…

  4. Marc Rodstein says:

    “So, by my math, if fuel price is a direct deterrent to flying Skyport should sell 600 percent more fuel during October. ”

    I think that is a ridiculous premise. People only have so much time. If flying were entirely FREE, few people could find the time to fly six times as much. If there IS a six-fold increase it will be because pilots are flocking there to fill up who normally don’t fill up there, not because the same people are flying six times as much. And if the increase is less than 600%, it does NOT prove that fuel cost is not an important impediment to flying.

    • John says:

      Good grief Mac. Mark, you beat me to it. I’m sorry Mac but your argument is not based on deductive logic. There is no direct relationship between how much fuel a single FBO sells and how much flying is going on. That’s like saying an increase in apple sales explains a decrease in orange sales. Ridiculous.

  5. Eric7 says:

    I think all articles like this need to steer clear of mentioning actual historical prices as in “in 1972 avgas cost 60 cents/gallon and now it’s $6 a gallon.” The historical price is meaningless unless adjusted for inflation so it can more accurately be compared to today’s price. Mike Busch did this in a fine article not long ago. It showed that avgas has always fluctuated in a range of $4 to $6 a gallon in inflation-adjusted terms, with the exception of a few short lived spikes. We are now at the high end of the range but it is not unprecedented. Sure high fuel prices impact flying, but can’t by itself explain the declining GA activity.

    One factor that gets little mention is the decline of the middle class and the manufacturing industry in the U.S. So many of the good, high paying jobs have either been automated or shipped overseas. People who sold airplanes in the ’70′s say these were the people who bought airplanes: the factory manager, or guy who owned a small firm that sold parts to GM or Ford. Productivity has surged since the ’70′s for the Fortune 500 companies. They learned how to squeeze the cost out of everything including the margins of their suppliers and employees. If you own stock in them, that’s great. If you work for them at anything below the C-suite, not so good. Certainly no money left over for an airplane. Plus, to keep up the standard of living, spouses now work which means less time for both. Then there’s the debt burden people took own as they borrowed against their homes, again in an attempt to maintain their standard of living. It’s been a tough couple of decades for many potential pilots and airplane owners.

  6. Doug D. says:

    I think it goes much deeper than that. A 1960 C172 retailed for about $9500. That would be about $75000 in today’s dollars. We all know what a 172 costs today. Used 172′s can be bought for much less than $75000, however most families were single income families in 1960 and doing much better than 2 income families are today. An hour of labor today does not buy what an hour of labor bought 50 some years ago. People have far less disposable income today, myself included. I don’t think the price of gas alone will have much affect on the pilot population or the number of new aircraft sold. Sadly, until we fix the bigger problem in our economy the best we can hope for is to slow the attrition. I don’t think flying carries the allure and mystique it once did either. Peoples perception is also a big factor. Everyone I talk to is surprised that I can afford an airplane on my income. They are even more surprised when I tell them I paid less for it than they did for their car and that my insurance is less. Many things need to change. Fuel prices aren’t one of them.

  7. Fred B. says:

    Mac I think gas prices do have an impact how can they not? Really? But to put it into perspective I fly piston helicopters that go for $250.00hr./solo, $300/hr Dual for a 2-place R-22, Over $400 for a 4-place R44. So in the scope of things gas in comparison is not a factor as much as say a C150/172 @ $100/hr.
    Flying is down because of the economy no crystal ball required. Look at “most” peoples’ change in lifestyle, downsizing is the norm and part of that downsizing is flying. Try putting 3 kids through college at the same time and still expect to put in 100+ hrs/ year flying..its NOT going to happen. Couple less flying to accident rates and you start to see a trend!
    Again no crystal ball required!
    I think people in the aviation industry don’t want to admit its all about money because if they did in this economy they would “really” know how bad the situation is and why its taking so long to turn-around GA.
    Like most things in like its all about money…. time to smell the coffee and stop wishing it was not so. No study will change that fact!

  8. William McIntosh says:

    Yeah, Middle -Class America’s disposable income is down, way down, just like consumer confidence, and we all know that flying is expensive, hence airplane operations and student starts are down in this brave new global Economy that Wall Street has invented for us but nobody voted for . Maybe just as importantly, disposable time is down, too, after these wonderful hours most people have to put in to make ends meet. And perhaps the Internet makes less travel possible.

    And there you have the ‘glass-half-empty” view… but how about the glass half-full view? I bet that flying simulation hours are up since the “good old days,” as is interest in RC and scale-model flying.

    On September 2, 2013, I watched , vicariously on Flightaware.com, one “James Van Gilder” fly a turbocharged Mooney about 1200 sm from Henderson Airport, Las Vegas, NV, to Addison Airport in North Dallas. There he was -out there- at 17,000 ft, on oxygen, for nearly 6 hours at long-range cruise….and I wondered-what makes a man like Mr. Van Gilder forsake a cheaper business class flight into Dallas to wear an oxygen mask for 6 hours in a single-engine airplane high over mountains and desert, and success riding on that big Lyc out front?

    I submit that the answer is “passion.” Yes, a passion for making that flight in his own Mooney instead of an airliner. A passion for doing it yourself. Mr Van Gilder may have thrown down 1k for that flight, but I doubt that he’ll ever forget it.

    So, in short, to increase airplane operations in this country , those that sell airplanes should just find more Mr. Van Gilders…they’re out there, even in the sim and RC communities. We just have to be passionate about finding them and getting them started in the Real Thing.. And kudos to Skyport in San Marcos, Texas…maybe it’s not all about the Almighty Buck after all…Jerry probably has quite a passion for general aviation.

  9. Harold Bickford says:

    Interest in and passion for flying are likely the two biggest motivators. Of the non-flying folks I know maybe one in ten will enthusiastically embrace the idea. Of those I know who do fly most will cite overall cost as a factor in how much and where/when they fly.

    A subset of of this argument would be to analyze and understand why and how the RV series has done so well in the E-AB segment.

  10. brett hawkins says:

    As pointed out above, the cost of gas is relatively minor for many recreational pilots. However, it can become a psychological issue if a pilot is burning gas flying the same old local routes over and over. In other words, the cost-benefit analysis of flying changes based on perceived value, which may decline over a pilot’s lifetime.

    Ditto for the numbers of actual and potential new pilots. The ongoing transfer of wealth from the middle class to the 1% is forcing ordinary people to make choices they didn’t need to 40 years ago. This transfer is good news for the bizjet industry but less so for recreational flying.

    Also, the continued application of current medical standards and practices to a greying PP pool will continue to deplete that pool. Young Eagles and similar programs to interest the young in flying are admirable, but parents still face family budget issues. Military training is an option but how many kids can meet the screening standards?

    Finally, the bizarre and terrifying “ramp checks” conducted by groups of anonymous, armed federal agents will dissuade pilots from flying based on “who needs the hassle?” The results of this and the preceding medical policy may be intentional and designed to hasten the demise of recreational flying based on so-called “national security” concerns.

    The price of gas will not impact obstacles arising from PP-unfriendly federal policies. The question is how to change them.

  11. Brian Plas says:

    Im a CFI that use to instruct 10 hours a day 7 days a week starting in 2005, by 2010 I was down to 6 hours a day 5 days a week, now I fly about 3 flights a week. What happened??? I thought if I wanted to keep past student flying at this point I had to figure a way to cut there cost, Soooo I came up with the brillant idea of lets get 6 of us to buy a plane and share the expence of owning it to make it cheaper than renting, well IT IS by all most $20 an hour. Are they flying more again………….NO!……Why?……..Plain and simply put– They can’t afford to, Everything elses cost has risen SOOOO much they can’t come up with enough money after there living expences to fly. Its all about wants and needs and the needs cost so much now they have nothing left for there wants. This holds true for the training end of it also. $1 dollor or $6 dollers really means nothing, If you don’t have it to spend then you don’t have it to spend plain and simple. I find that for the most part the people in aviation are way above average in everything they do and putting it on credit isn’t how they live, they do without first. welcome to hope and change, It doesn’t look good for aviations near future.

  12. unclelar says:

    Fuel goes down times six so flying should go up by six? Huh? Somewhere along the line Mac either didn’t take any basic economic or business courses or he slept through them. What a dumb comment.

  13. SkyGuy says:

    The SOLE reason……repeat the SOLE reason I don’t fly much anymore….is the high cost of fuel.
    PERIOD !!!

  14. John says:

    As a younger pilot (33), I’m looking around at a room full of retirees every time I go to a fly-in. All the airplanes I can come close to affording are old (I bought a 67′ 172), not flashy, and prehistoric in comparison to the gizmos and performance that people in the younger generation expect to get out of their cellphone, or even a used car. Back when the TV had twelve channels, you could only consume a finite amount of media. The internet didn’t suck everyone into a black hole like it does now. If I spent half as much time building an airplane as I have reading about it, I’d be done by now. Nobody gets into flying because they don’t get bored or quiet long along to ponder. People aren’t flying because they have “better” things to do, which usually means staring at a screen.

  15. The 1% can afford to own and fly their own airplane. The rest of us are lucky just to keep the bank from foreclosing on our houses if we are lucky enough to be able to get a mortgage to begin with. We don’t even drive our cars if we don’t absolutely have to because it costs too much to fill the gas tank. We can afford to stay home until it’s time to go to work. It’s no mystery why the pilot community is withering away.

    • Jeff Boatright says:

      Yes, Mike Busch makes good points, but what Mark LaPierre states is what’s happening in EAA-type aviation. It’s silly to think that our tiny endeavor drives what happens within its little world. It is driven by the larger societal reality. What differentiates “the good old days” from the present? Stagnant real wages since the 80s. Go back and read old issues of Experimenters and Sport Aviations. Who used to build? Who used to fly? Who used to innovate? By and large, it was not the 1%, who simply use developed technologies. That segment of GA continues just fine.

      The rest? Not so much.

  16. Snaucler says:

    This column has raised a good question and certainly roused a variety of thoughtful comments. As I understand it the market for larger, more expensive business aircraft is currently doing well, while the market for smaller aircraft is suffering. That would seem to indicate a consolidation of greater wealth in the hands of a smaller number of people. That certainly does not bode well for the short term future of the smaller aircraft market.

    Personally, I am working towards my private license. It has been an interesting experience. I started at one flight school and after several months of lessons and discussions with pilot friends, I realized my instructor was not really engaged in my training. The result is that my license will take several months longer and $3,000 to $5,000 more than it needed to. I am committed to learning to fly. Many people may not have that same commitment and give up along the way. That $3k to $5k would buy a lot of $6 avgas.

    I have considered buying an airplane, but the prospect of buying a $25k airplane and then getting a surprise $30k annual is pretty intimidating when considering a first plane. I could go LSA, but that would be $100k and I would be up against the gross weight if I wanted to fly with anyone else. I will likely end up building a kit plane at some point. In the meantime I am renting. The rental price includes fuel. There is a small fuel surcharge, but at $120/hr, a $3/hr fuel surcharge is not significant.

    Certainly $6 avgas will reduce the flying that some owners do, but in the big picture, it is a small factor. I think the bigger issues are the shrinking middle class, the high cost of new (non-LSA) aircraft, and the potential for crippling maintenance costs for an aging used airplane.

    • Bill P says:

      Snaucler,

      Congratulations on your journey to get your pilot’s license. If you don’t decide to build an airplane, do yourself a favor and do what I did , which is buy a used RV-4, which is obviously an experimental, or whatever type of experimental you like and can afford. Look on barnstormers or trade-a-plane and you’ll see you can get RV-4s starting in the 30′s and up. For that price, you’re talking a plane of a modern design that is fast (200mph), carries two people and a bunch of baggage, is strong as hell, does aerobatics (not upper level competition), is universally known as a joy to fly (which is why a bunch of ex-military fighter pilots fly them), and will make you a hell of a pilot doing (if you want) spins, loops, rolls, tail wheel operations and fast cross countries. That’s pretty damn incredible bang for your buck right there. You can do basically all your own maintenance and repairs except for annual conditional inspections, and those will be pennies on the dollar compared to production aircraft. More bang for your buck. Your real expense will be hangar rent, because you should keep it inside, but I save because the small size of an experimental allows me to split a hangar w/ another experimental. But hangar rent is still by far the most expensive part of my ownership, so do be aware of it.

      How to do it? Join your local EAA chapter or just go to your local airport and start looking for pilots/builders that own and fly RVs or any other experimental you are interested in. I found a guy who built 3 RV-4′s and paid him to help me search for and pre-inspect my plane. Most people shy away from buying used experimentals because they’re afraid they won’t know if the builder did something wrong, but aluminum airplanes are for the most part transparent when you learn how to examine them (you can see all the skins, rivets, seams, control linkages, engine compartment, instruments, etc.). I searched the FAA database and found not a single RV4 had ever broken in flight. Start going to airshows with experimentals at them (SunNFun, Oshkosh, lots of others) and start learning how to judge and spot good build quality on the type of aircraft you’re interested in. After a while, I didn’t need my expert anymore to do an initial inspection on a plane because I had learned and could see for myself (even though I did use him for the final pre-purchase inspection). If you’re really concerned on build quality, you can even look for an experimental that won awards at Oshkosh, SunNFun, etc., in which case you know a bunch of inspectors have been over it w/ a fine toothed comb (before you and your guy do the same). There are some incredibly well-built experimental ships out there. But be aware there’s a bunch of junk too (and I saw it while on my search — but I should clarify: I didn’t see unsafe junk, just stuff that was not the nicest build quality).

      Learn what you’re doing so you know the difference, and you’ll crack the code to the cheapest way to get into aviation. It still costs significant money, no doubt about it, but you may find the rewards are worth it.

      Good luck.

      • Snaucler says:

        Bill,

        Thanks for the encouragement. I am definitely sold on an Experimental airplane. If I don’t build one myself, I like your idea of getting someone who has built a plane like I am interested in to help with the inspection. The RV’s have an amazing track record and would be a good choice. I am, however, leaning towards a high wing back country plane. The Kitfox and the Highlander are currently high on my list.

        • Bill P says:

          Whatever type of experimental plane(s) you’re interested in, you can get information about. A lot of the fun is tracking down the planes that turn you on and learning all you can about their design and build. Since you’re into tube and fabric, if possible go to SunNFun or Oshkosh and go to the tents staffed with guys just waiting to teach you everything about building these types for nothing beyond the price of admission at the front gate. You’ll learn a lot fast and cheap. Look for web forums too, such as the forum at backcountrypilot.org, where guys are always hangar flying about the pros and cons of different types. For example, here’s a post by a guy probably like yourself asking experienced pilots which affordable aircraft they’d recommend for high altitude back country flying: http://www.backcountrypilot.org/forum/an-affordable-high-mountain-airplane-12525
          The responses point to cheap production and experimentals, including the kitfox and highlander. There a lots of other forums out there.
          Good luck.

    • brett hawkins says:

      Snaucler, nice to know that little has changed about flight training since I got my PPL 20 years ago. I walked into an FBO advertising a PPL for $1800 and finally passed my checkride after forking out well over $3K. I too fired my first CFI after I realized he was wasting my time and money, which cost me when I had to repeat a bunch of stuff for the second CFI. CFI No. 2 was a gorgeous flt attendant so there were compensations for the additional time.

      As for a plane, Bill P’s comments are right on. I went the Glasair 1 route (second hand kit and engine, 2.5 years till first flight, $40K total) but if I ever destroyed it I would replace it with an RV.

      One downside to purchasing a pre-built experimental is that (and correct me if I am wrong) you won’t get a repairman’s certificate to do your own annuals, maintenance and so forth. With that certificate in hand my major expense is hanger rent, plus wear-related stuff like an engine overhaul, new radios and so forth when needed.

      Plus, if you have a lower compression engine, you can use mogas which cuts your fuel expenses.

  17. Dave Barker says:

    I finally sold my beautiful Mooney 231 last December. I hated to see it go, but it took the fun out of it real fast burning $60 + / hour for avgas. A car, horsecart and airplane are all point A to B transportation devices and all compete with each other in some parts of the transit arena. Personal aircraft must be cost competive int the cost payload / time equation with every other means of transportation. That means roughly that a 4 place aircraft should get nearly comparable gas mileage to an automobile if the higher fixed costs of maintenance, taxes and storage are factored in.

    • Sorry, Dave, that’s just absurd. An airplane has to defy gravity. An automobile doesn’t. There’s no way an airplane with comparable payload can achieve the gas mileage of an automobile without defying the basic laws of physics.

      Another thing to consider is the value of your time. I’m flying my plane from California to Duluth MN and back in a few weeks, then from California to Fort Worth TX and back a few weeks later (for AOPA Summit). Do you really think it would be practical for me to make those trips in my automobile? (Maybe if I were retired and had nothing better to do.) Airplanes are time machines. How much is your time worth?

  18. Joe says:

    While I agree that fuel prices are one factor, there are many others. For starters, there is less disposable income to pay for the annuals, maintenance, Jepp Charts, XM WX subscription, etc. Unfortunately, when the plane sits, it costs more in maintenance, so there’s even less money for the hourly expenses of flying it. This snowballs quickly.

    By the time the gov’t and Blue Cross get done with my paycheck, it’s half gone. I don’t think I’m alone. Mortgage or toys? Not much of a choice, is it? As a result, I am spending a lot more time on the motorcycle and much less in the plane. Even with regards to the bike, I’m riding a Metric, because I couldn’t afford to plate, insure, and maintain a $20,000 Harley anymore. Cutting back has been the houslehold mantra for most of us since 2008.

    This is why I am so irritated at the EAA and the AOPA, because now we’re looking at more thousands of dollars to ADS-B equip. Instead of going to bat and fighting for us, our “rights” organizations told us how cool it is to have the latest and greatest of gadgetry in our planes. We were basically told to get on board and pony up.

    Again, fuel is one factor, but I primarily blame our gov’t. Karl Marx would be proud. Finally, I wish the organizations that are supposed to represent us would better consider those of us who don’t burn kerosene.

    • Jeff Boatright says:

      Joe, I’m not grockin’ it. You’re saying that the cost of ADS-B, something that hasn’t happened yet as a mandate (if ever), is what’s keeping you from flying? I’m not disagreeing with the vast majority of what you’re saying, but I don’t see the logical connection of all the rest (e.g., general lack of real income) with the future costs of ADS-B.

  19. Bruce says:

    If your Mooney flys @ 200 mph on 10 gph, that’s 20 mpg. My F 150 can’t beat that at 65 mph. If your Prius could drive that fast it still wouldn’t be that efficient. Stop whining and fly!

  20. Vasily says:

    Well, I can’t disagree with all comments. No doubt “the sun was brighter and grass was greener” a number years ago, but knowing that are not gonna move us forward. I think, the answer is relatively simple…

    Why most of us learn to fly? A dream, passion… you name it. I assume what most of us want to fly “as much as we can”… and, taking the economy into account, that means “as much as we can afford”. Yes, we spend more time “digging gold” for our budgets, but, come on, we still have our weekends!

    Yes, in current economy most of us cannot afford any spendings without budgeting them first, so, we have our absolute limit of what we’re willing to spend on that. Now we come to a question: how many hours can we afford for our budget? There are two major components in an hour cost for me: maintenance + fuel.

    Let’s assume I fly 100 hrs/year, as an average pilot in US. With current fuel prices at $6.70 for 100LL in our NYC area, that ‘fuel’ portion of expenses is around 40-45% of my yearly budget… and that portion will only grow with each extra hour. If you rent, the percentage a bit different, but “fuel” still one of the major parts in that summary. The problem for me is what I cannot reduce my “maintenance” cost unless I will be able to do all the maintenance myself. So, if I have “budget cuts”, the only way to do that is to save on fuel… what means to fly less. So, for me the answer on Mac’s question is obvious: more I save on gas, more hours I WILL fly… cause I love it & I want to do that.

    The other question is laws & rules. I understand that “all rules in aviation are written by blood”, but, let’s be honest, a lot of that rules were developed decades ago… With modern technologies, I believe some rules & laws can be simplified or even withdrawn without significant impact on safety.

    I agree with comments what now people have to spend more time solving their financial issues & just dealing with some more important stuff other than GA… Life changed, that’s fine! That just means, If you want GA to survive, you have to change the GA rules accordingly: if some other “stuff” consuming more of your resources, you have to change GA and make it consuming less resources. And by “resources” I mean not only money, but, more important – time! Simplify rules, make them less time consuming so we will be able to justify some increase cost of other aspects. Simplify all that “stuff” like maintenance & medicals, what now deters people… Make owning & operating a simple, single four-seater with fixed tricycle gear as simple as owning a car, and situation with GA will improve significantly even with current gas prices.

  21. Richard Frederick says:

    How do year-to-year fuel prices compare when adjusted for inflation?

  22. Chris Moon says:

    In the 50′s through 70′s we experienced a golden combination of public interest in aviation and affordable airplanes. People have disposable income now as much or more than then. But there is much more to spend it on – and more competition from alluring gadgets, pastimes, travel and 4 dollar coffees.

    I suspect the problem is that aviation has faded from being a number 1 public interest to just another mode of travel. Being an airline pilot has faded from a number 1 cool occupation to a skilled trade in the public’s mind.

    Until the late 70′s pilots and aviation were top of the public mind. Pilots were seen to be exciting, cool, with it; someone to emulate or strive to become. Aviation, space travel and aircraft were front page news – the latest speed record, military jet, DC8, and so on were exciting. Now there is a “so what” attitude. Young people simply do not see aviation or flying an aircraft as an exciting or cool pastime.

    If young people want to fly, my bet is that they can find the money. It is the “wanting” that is missing, not the “money”.

  23. Jay Apt says:

    Well-written, Mac, and a most interesting experiment. It got me thinking about what data we have in hand. I’ve graphed the avgas wholesale annual average price (inflation-adjusted to 2012 dollars) and the annual estimated GA hours flown here: http://www.beechtalk.com/forums/download/file.php?id=56357&mode=view
    I don’t believe this setup lets me post an image, so here are the raw data:

    Year Avgas price Flight Hours
    1978 1.82 34,887,000
    1979 2.18 38,641,000
    1980 3.02 36,402,000
    1981 3.29 36,803,000
    1982 3.12 29,640,000
    1983 2.89 28,673,000
    1984 2.73 29,099,000
    1985 2.56 28,322,000
    1986 2.12 27,073,000
    1987 1.83 26,972,000
    1988 1.73 27,446,000
    1989 1.84 27,920,000
    1990 1.97 28,510,000
    1991 1.76 27,678,000
    1992 1.68 24,780,000
    1993 1.57 22,796,000
    1994 1.48 22,235,000
    1995 1.51 24,906,000
    1996 1.63 24,881,000
    1997 1.61 25,591,000
    1998 1.37 25,518,000
    1999 1.46 29,246,000
    2000 1.74 27,838,000
    2001 1.72 25,431,000
    2002 1.64 25,545,000
    2003 1.86 25,705,000
    2004 2.21 24,888,000
    2005 2.62 23,168,000
    2006 3.05 23,963,000
    2007 3.15 23,819,000
    2008 3.49 22,805,000
    2009 2.61 20,456,000
    2010 3.19 21,440,000
    2011 3.88 21,239,000
    2012 3.97 21,265,000

    There is no correlation (mathematically the correlation is -0.08, not statistically significant). If avgas price was a huge factor in GA flight hours, we would expect a large negative correlation. The nice bump in flight hours in 1999 is probably due to the excellent overall economy then, rather than the lagged response to the 1998 25 cent price drop in fuel. In some other years, flight hours and fuel costs go down together.

    Certainly, high fuel prices don’t help, but drops in fuel prices don’t seem to help much either.

  24. Bob says:

    It’s a flawed experiment at best.
    People will make special trips just to cash in on the cheap fuel, and even go far out of their way to fill up, but when the deal is over the flying will stop. That may tell you the problem is expensive fuel but it isn’t the whole story.
    At least part of the low training numbers problem is that career pilot training is down because young people have decided they don’t want to pay big money to become employable and then make poverty wages for the next ten years. Who can blame them?
    This isn’t exactly a secret and you don’t have to practically give away fuel to figure it out.

  25. Garry Sondergaard says:

    Mac,
    I have owned an airplane for over 45 years and now also have a Baron. I have always felt privileged to pay a premium for traveling by light airplane. However $175 an hour just for gas just takes all the fun out. Her in the west where the legs are are longer thses costs make auto and airline cheap by comparison. I still fly, just not nearly as much and I enjoy a lot less. ITS KILLING US.

  26. Larry Stencel says:

    Very few of the comments put any large blame on the Feds.

    In 1972 when I got my first ticket, the FAA was not the onerous, bureaucratic all-powerful entity that it is today filled with highly paid people who have to “do something” to justify their bloated incomes under the guise of “aviation safety.” Given the instant gratification available from other sources and the addiction to iPhones, et al, younger folks can get their ‘kicks’ in other ways without fear of being hassled — including economically — from numerous Federal agencies.

    Mike Busch is espousing that ALL interested pilots comment negatively against a recent FAA NPRM on ECI cylinders even if you don’t own them. THIS A&P agrees. Now, because of one crash by a fresh private pilot with ONE hour in a PA28, the FAA in ATL has an NPRM to install a new fuel selector plate/handle in PA28 airplanes (not already done) which will cost owners $700 and won’t do anything that a savvy pilot wouldn’t avoid. THIS is the kind of nonesense which people “sense” and causes them to walk away from aviation as a source of disposable income recreational endeavor.

    One only has to go to AirVenture to ‘SEE’ the passion. Turning that passion into reality involves all sorts of other factors which add up fast to disuade the idea. The EAA has given 1.8 million Young Eagle flights but has little to show for it. There’s a reason.

    I confronted an FAA type over the above NPRM last week and asked him what he was going to do for work when there was one FAA type for every pilot left flying? He didn’t have an answer.

    SO, Mac… If the economy of the US was good and FAA oversight wasn’t SO onerous and the fixed costs of entry weren’t so high, aviation WOULD be booming. Redbirds $1 avgas isn’t going to prove anything other than pilots will go out of their way to buy some IF they’re in the local area. It’s a ridiculous stunt. Bob is correct.

  27. Bill Tomlinson says:

    Having just one flying school selling cheap fuel doesn’t really help. Once a student has completed his PPL at that facility – then what??

  28. Larry Tompkins says:

    There will not be a direct correlation between fuel cost and hours flown because it is not the primary consideration. For recreationally flown aircraft, a probable order is:

    1. Discretionary time
    2. Cooperative weather
    3. Sufficient discretionary income to support fixed aircraft costs such as hangar, annual and insurance.
    4. Sufficient discretionary income to support variable costs such as unscheduled maintenance and fuel costs. FWIW, since I started flying in 1991, the cost of Avgas has tripled and my household income has doubled. My perception is that I have less discretionary income today than in the past. I have been able to fly this year for the first time in 2.5 years because my youngest has graduated from college.

    I would suggest that fuel costs are pretty far down this list but that they are significant because they are the largest portion of variable costs.

    Regarding the FAA, Larry Stencel has the direction the FAA is headed about right. The FAA has about 50,000 employees and there are about 275,000 flying aircraft (of which about 75,000 are commercial aircraft), so there are currently about 5.5 FAA employees for every registered US Aircraft. [my numbers are based on 2008 FAA data]

    • Mike Lilja says:

      Larry,

      Using your numbers, Airplanes = 275,000, FAA = 50,000 Employees means 5.5 airplanes per employee, not 5.5 employees per airplane.

      Many good points have been made, regarding available time, available money, available desire to fly, regulation or excess regulation. I would also like to add one more and that is the industry itself. Other than a few airframes, think Cirrus and Lancair, little has changed of real consequence in airplanes. The same old construction, the same old engines, the same old way of doing things. That was why a few years ago when there was speculation Toyota might get in the market people thought there might be a chance of getting to where this discussion has been going, a quality, affordable product that doesn’t nickel and dime or arm and leg you to death.

      One of the the things that excites younger people (and me as not so young) is to see improvement and some real change in something. This industry (yeah, blame the FAA) has done little to improve itself since the 1950s and always using the excuse of lack of numbers to invest in any real change or improvement. That also has left a dry taste in my mouth as well. I think, to a large degree, the industry itself is causing its own demise.

  29. Bill P says:

    I think the biggest deterrent to flying caused by high fuel prices is with regard to long cross-country flights. I used to fly from the northeast to SunNFun basically without even considering the fuel cost. You got a great adventure at a minimal cost fuel-wise. This year, I compared the cost of flying myself to SunNFun (probably over $1,000 fuel cost) versus a $240 round trip discount airline flight and there wasn’t much comparison. Since I’ve done this particular adventure multiple times before, the pull of adventure wasn’t as strong, and this year I decided to save the $750. I have multiple pilot friends who have been behaving the same way.

    The farther your trip will be, the greater the cost disparity versus flying commercial. Calculate how much fuel cost you’ll incur if you fly your particular airplane coast to coast. It’s pretty high, right? Now compare it to the expense of a round trip airline flight, which you can probably get for under $400. There really is no comparison cost-wise. Sure, by going commercial you will miss a great adventure you could have had flying yourself, but the obvious financial impact of the high fuel prices can’t be denied. The flip side is that if you’re just going to fly a short local flight, the increase in fuel prices isn’t as much of a deterrent. And that’s exactly what I’ve seen with the pilots I know. They tend to keep their airplanes going by doing shorter hops, then they take commercial for the long flights.

    The reason the experiment is, unfortunately, flawed is that the $1/gal fuel is only located at one airport. Put it at all airports across the country, and allow the time necessary for flight schools and other commercial operations to reduce their prices accordingly, and now you’ll have a real experiment. You can’t convince me people wouldn’t start flying GA aircraft for longer trips more often.

    And keep in mind that if you tend to fly longer trips, you’ll notice you really start wracking up the flying hours compared to periods where you’re restricting yourself to local hops. So higher fuel prices really do have an effect on flying time, in my opinion. Look at the comment above by the pilot who said he took his grandson to Alaska, but it cost him $3,000 in his fuel bill alone, so he won’t be repeating that trip often. What a bummer, compared to “the good ol’ days.” This is why I have to agree with the comments above taking Mac to task for suggesting that if fuel price is a direct deterrent we should see flying increase by six times in October.

  30. I’m an affluent upper middle class professional, with the obligations on my time and money that one would expect of a person that has a family, a working wife and a person who fits that description.

    Flying 25 hours a year in 30-40 year old rental airplanes, getting my medical cert, buying renters insurance, AOPA and EAA memberships, a Foreflight subscription, and not much else pretty much consumes my “play” money. Actually buying an airplane, getting a multi-engine rating, regaining instrument currency or for that matter just getting checked out in a more modern airplane like an SR20, would be completely beyond my budget.

    The problem is that it’s hard to sustain a GA industry on people like me, and once you get into the income levels that are significantly higher than mine, you are really looking at a small market.

  31. Rodney Hall says:

    I think several people have mentioned the key, disposable income. Looking at the recreational boating industry as another place people spend disposable income they are buying jetski’s small boats and not larger 100,000 dollar boats. The aircraft version is buying a used Cessna or Piper for 25,000 but the upkeep is much more than for a 25,000 dollar NEW boat. Required annual inspections, hangar or tiedown, expensive gas and insurance. If you were looking for something to do with the family and had a budget to keep a boat you can put on a trailer and take home would be much easier to justify to the wife. A nice sized boat costs about the same as a small car. While the differential in a plane and car (a 1960 skyhawk cost about 4 times the price of a Mustang and a new Skyhawk still costs about 4 times the price of a mustang.) is almost the same the difference is in the amount of disposable income people have to spend. We need to fix the economy and GA will take care of itself.

  32. Robert says:

    I own a 1946 Aeronca 11AC Chief. Paid $16k for it and It runs and flies like new. At 3.8gph consumption (mogas STC, and avgas) and $300 per year insurance (liability only), and average annual costing about $300, and $150/month hangar, it is not hard for me to keep it. Cheap, safe, fun, reliable, basic flying. Fuel cost is always a factor in flying, but when you can trim back the cost of ownership to the bare bones minimum, it does help open doors to get out and fly. I am a single income household with 3 childeren ranging from 9months to 14 years old, and wife who requires regular medical attention, so I know very well about cost of living and budgeting. I do fly considerably less now than before, but it is more of a time availability issue for me than cost. Work hours are longer to make ends meet in this economy. So when you factor that in with juggling time with family and many other factors, sometimes unless you don’t sleep, there is rarely time to fly. And if there was time to fly, the weather won’t let you. I paid around $6k for my private 7 years ago. That includes all of the books, tutorials, simulator for the computer, flight gear, plane rental and instructor. I bought 40 hours of (wet rental) “block time”, up front, in a Piper Warrior, so I only had to pay for the instructor each time I went up. I was fortunate to complete my private certificate in only 43 hours. It was a big initial investment but once it was paid for up front, any financial “hickups” that happened down the road from when I bought the “block time” did not seriously affect my flight training. After my checkride I chose to purchase my plane in leu of a better car upgrade, so I don’t mind driving arround my old beat up Saturn, so long as I can still fly. The Light sport certificate is a cheap alternative to the private if you plan on owning a plane like the old Luscombe’s or Aeronca’s, but for those who will only rent to fly, they are not as readily available. There are many out there who dream of flying, but can’t shell out the kind of money that it takes to get their certificate, and I fully understand that. And paying for a lesson here and a lesson there as you can afford to, will seriously impact the amount of hours it will take to get a certificate due to obvious factors. It can also extinguish motivation. For those who choose to purchase that brand new vehicle, or 70″ big screen home theater system, and things of that sort, and then give up their dream of learning to fly because the “cant afford it” are victims of the need of instant gratification. They are driving their pilot certificate or watching their certificate in high definition from thier couch. Flight training takes time and dedication, but with proper planning and financial forecasting, and maybe some sacrifice here and there, even in this economy, it can be done. I am not wealthy by any means. Far far from it. I am a single income husband and father of 3, working 60+hours a week as a maintenance technician, with my share of bills comming in, yet I still managed to fulfill my dream of getting my private pilot certificate and owning a beautiful classic airplane. It can be done.

  33. Hans says:

    Hi All,

    may I indulge in a comment from the other side of the pond?

    In my opinion, over here, not the extremely expensive avgas is killing us, but the EASA bureauprats are…

    Even if the ‘cheapest’ avgas around my neck of the woods is €2.30/liter (which converts to €8.71 / gallon which at today’s exchange rate converts to $11.58/gal…) the biggest issue here is EASA putting up nice little hurdles for GA:
    - ICAO licenses where done away with, and we got JAR/FCL licenses in exchange
    - JAR/FCL licenses (still issued nationally per EASA nation) are now done away with and we’ll get a ‘European licence’ in exchange
    - since European nations don’t have the common sense to delegate VHF frequency management to a single European body, we now ‘need’ new VHF sets with 8.33kHz channel spacing (January next year for IFR-certificated planes, January 2017 for all others…)
    - Mode-S transponders have been forced upon GA without getting anything for it in exchange. ADS-B services are limited to TIS, all other information that is transmitted over ADS-B on your side of the Atlantic are not available over here…

    This is just the view of a lonely GA-pilot. If you’d ask a EASA licensed shop manager about the very same issue, keep away from him at least a couple of feet as he might instantly start to puke or become agressive otherwise…

    $6/gallon? Yes please, would be nice for a change – but I’d rather get rid of that intrusive body called EASA….

    I for my part now own and operate a Rotax-912 engined aircraft and feed it with autofuel exclusively. That’s my answer to deal with our fuel prices…

  34. Bill P says:

    Mac, considering EAA and AOPA are reporting Redbird is calling an early halt after only ten days to its $1/gal avgas experiment, on account of being swamped beyond all forecasts with demand for avgas, it looks like the stage is set for your board to come alive with comments and opinions once you revisit this issue.

    Maybe you’ll choose to wait until Redbird supplies more details, but already some really interesting information is being reported, such as that Redbird forecast an eightfold increase in avgas demand — which would have resulted in sales of 32,000 gallons for the entire month — yet they were in fact crushed with 48,000 gallons in sales in the first eight days alone! Further, 30% of purchases were supposedly by pilots flying piston twins and the most common customers were instrument rated pilots with over 4000 hours. I hardly even see twins at my airport anymore, and a full 30% of customers were operating twins? Amazing (if true).

    I would expect most of us thought the high price of avgas was putting the biggest hurt on folks on a budget who are barely able to scrape together the cash to go flying, which tends to bring to mind people flying strictly VFR in older, less expensive and less powerful aircraft, not people flying twins and having instrument ratings and a high number of hours in their logbooks. Who would have guessed it was the guys with the bigger, more expensive airplanes who have been holding back on flying?

    On the other hand, I’m sure people will respond with a “do the math” type argument, namely: If we assume an average price of avgas at $6/gal, then obviously you saved $5/gal when you filled up at Redbird, so somebody who put 30 gallons in his single engine experimental was effectively being given a check for $150 (30 gal x $5/gal = $150), whereas somebody who takes 100 gallons in his twin was effectively handed a check for $500. Sounds like a lot of people had a hard time resisting being handed that kind of money to go fly their airplanes.

    Obviously, there are all kinds of other arguments and conclusions to be drawn from the information.

    I also read that Redbird Chairman Jerry Gregoire says he expects to take a lot of criticism for terminating the experiment early. To the contrary, I salute him and the other backers who had the imagination and willingness to take whatever financial hit they took to conduct the experiment in hopes the results might be of some benefit to the GA community.

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