Fueling Up for Oshkosh

There is, of course, weather to check, notams, and routing to plan for the flight to Oshkosh. But many pilots will spend about as much time researching fuel prices at airports along the way.

There are dozens of web outlets that post airport fuel prices, and I’m sure you have your favorite. Some sources are more accurate than others mostly because they are updated frequently. Aviation fuel prices jump around like crazy so information more than a couple days old may be wildly inaccurate.

Prices for 100LL avgas can vary two, three and even more dollars per gallon at airports not that far apart. Since avgas is a national commodity made at only a relative handful of refineries what’s the explanation for the vast variance in retail prices?

The fundamental answer is the big difference in the fuel retailers’ operating costs. The actual profit margin in fuel sales doesn’t change nearly as much as the cost of delivering the fuel into your airplane.

Consider at one extreme the airport that offers only self service fuel. The airport, if it is staffed at all, almost certainly has only one person there and only for at most eight hours a day. The operating costs that must be added to set the retail fuel price at an airport like that are small.

At the other end is a full service FBO that is fully staffed by several people for probably 16 or more hours a day. That FBO has a comfortable waiting room, pilot briefing services, food vending or more options, regularly cleaned restrooms, quickly available ground transportation and on and on. Since the only significant income left for FBOs is from fuel sales it’s easy to see how the cost of all of the staff and services must be added into the final retail price of fuel.

Neither type of fuel/FBO operation is intrinsically good or bad. It drives me crazy when I hear pilots blasting the fuel price at a big full service FBO without for a moment considering who pays the cost of the many services included in the fuel price. If you don’t want to pay for the FBO services, land at one of the thousands of airports that don’t offer those services.

But when you make your plans for Oshkosh consider what you may want to pay for along the way. For example, that airport that has rock bottom fuel prices may or may not offer any other service. If weather pins you down there in the evening you could be stuck sleeping in your airplane because there are no taxies, no nearby hotels, and no way to get to a restaurant. That may be perfectly fine with you, and is an eventuality that you have planned for. But it’s a possibility that must be considered.

The availability of basic maintenance is another factor in selecting a fuel stop. With the big drop in flying activity since the recession began six years ago many airports can’t support a maintenance shop, or even individual mechanic, on the field. Something as simple as a flat tire, dead battery or failed starter could leave you stranded for hours or more.

Another factor that can alter fuel prices dramatically from one small airport to another is the sales volume. Minimum fuel deliveries are typically 3,000 to 5,000 gallons. Fuel providers grant very short payment periods so the load of fuel in the small FBO tank must be paid for long before it is eventually all sold. Since wholesale fuel prices can change daily the cost to the FBO can be very different depending upon when the fuel was delivered. It could take months for some small FBOs to sell a load of fuel so they are stuck with a price that is out of date, which can be either good or bad depending upon the fuel cost at delivery.

FBOs also employ different pricing strategies. One FBO may set the retail price based on the wholesale cost he paid upon delivery. Another FBO may try to estimate what the price of the next delivery will be and set retail price on the cost of the “replacement” fuel. When fuel prices are moving dramatically, as is all too common, which price strategy an FBO uses can make a big difference.

But wherever you buy fuel on the way to Oshkosh be sure to arrive with lots of reserve. How much is enough? At least double the 30 minute required VFR reserve is essential, and I would feel comfortable with more like a couple of hours. Despite the well honed arrival procedures at Oshkosh the situation can change in an instant. For example, a minor mishap on the runway can cause landing delays to ripple out for a long time. A strong wind making only one runway available dramatically cuts capacity. And at some periods airplane parking has filled up in the past which causes delays and diversions.

Fuel prices will be a big concern for every pilot headed to Oshkosh, but remember the many other factors that can make your trip a pleasant or a trying one.

Click on this link to see information from FBOs that have told EAA about special Oshkosh discounts they are offering: http://www.eaa.org/en/airventure/eaa-fly-in-flying-to-oshkosh/fuel-service-and-discounts/fbo-discounts-special-offers

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4 Responses to Fueling Up for Oshkosh

  1. Glade Montgomery says:

    Well said, Mac. I, for one, am pretty happy to pay a higher price where it supports better services.

  2. TedK says:

    The two least costly places for 100LL between DC and OSH are at opposite ends of the aviation spectrum. Wynkoop (6G4) is a cash only, minimalist grass trip (there is nothing wrong with that) and Gary (KGYY) with full service jet FBO. And Gary is cheaper than Wynkoop!

  3. Sarah A says:

    For those who will “Flying” a bit lower (i.e. at ground level) my experiences show that the best gas prices will be found at the large travel plazas that cater to the big rig trucks. Volume is everything in fuel pricing and when you consider the thousends of gallons of diesel fuel they are going through you can see that the relatively smaller volume of auto gas gets a helping hand. That is the same at the airport of course, if the FBO is doing big business with the biz jet crowd then that volume helps cover the cost of the facility significantly. Those who go to full service FBOs to take advantage of the services and then complain about the extra cost need to spend a little time studying basic economics and keep in mind that nothing is truly free, the cost was just covered in some way other then direct payment. That is reality !

    Good and relavent topic this week.

  4. You are right but with this fuel price many people are forced to focus just on cheapest price.

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