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.