Self-service saves

Being well into the second half-century of my life, I vividly recall how, in 1973, the OPEC oil embargo, knee-jerk government-imposed price controls and the subsequent shortage of gasoline wreaked havoc on our nation’s economy. On my 16th birthday of that year, Nov. 6, I soloed an airplane for the first time at the late, great Kentucky Flying Service on Bowman Field, Louisville, Ky., where I happily slaved each weekend as a line boy to earn the $20 required for an hour and a half of dual in a C150.

Although the hourly rates for flying remained fairly stable over the next year, the cost of gas needed to get to the airport started cutting into my meager funds, stressed further when I discovered girls. With the appearance of the first “Hep-er-Sef” self-service gas stations, bringing significant cost savings, things started looking up for this plane-crazy teenager.

Today, nearly all of our nation’s 110,000 gas stations offer self-service fueling (unless you live in New Jersey or Oregon, where for reasons I do not understand consumers may not pump fuel into cars, but the same people may self-fuel their aircraft.) Among the 3,600 FBOs listed on AirNav, about one-third offer self-service, with its prevalence higher at airports that cater to sport aviators and smaller aircraft that do not require fueling from a truck.

Self-service aviation fuel stations (disclaimer: I sell them) have many benefits:

  • They lower personnel and fuel truck costs for their owners.
  • Are preferred by most GA pilots for the convenience they offer.
  • Are generally available 24/7, increasing the total amount of fuel sold.
  • Free up ramp space and fuel trucks for an FBO’s larger clients that need truck refueling.
  • Lower costs of acquisition and operation allow small airports to offer fuel.
  • Result in lower fuel prices and hence more flying activity.

On this last point, as a pilot who has been purchasing avgas and mogas at airports around the eastern half of the U.S. for over four decades, I knew that self-service fuel is generally cheaper than full-service, i.e. that pumped by an attendant from a truck or stationary fuel station.  Given the rapid rise in the price of leaded avgas the past few years, I was curious to see what the price difference truly was, and how this varies across the country.

Making use of the very practical ‘Local Fuel Prices‘ tab at AirNav.com, I averaged the prices for avgas around nine major airports. In the table below, I show the average avgas prices for full-service (FS) and self-service (SS) fuel at the airports listed when one enters the identifier for each of the following nine airports. (all figures below USD)

Airport ID Airport Location FS average SS average Price Difference
CLT Charlotte, NC 6.14 5.65 0.49
DFW Dallas 7.19 5.22 1.97
AWO Arlington, WA 7.15 6.26 0.89
LAX Los Angeles 6.72 6.01 0.71
FFZ Mesa, AZ 6.63 5.52 1.11
PDK Atlanta 6.98 5.86 1.12
ASH Nashua, NH 6.73 5.65 1.08
LAL Lakeland, FL 6.68 5.28 1.40
OSH Oshkosh, WI 5.84 5.53 0.31
Average of all 9 airports 6.67 5.66 1.01

These figures show that self-service fuel is clearly less expensive in each of these parts of the country, ranging from a low of 31 cents around Oshkosh (OSH) to a high of $1.97 around Dallas/Ft.Worth (DFW). The average savings to pilots at the airports considered in this (back-of-the-envelope) study is around a dollar, very significant indeed. Given that many FBOs offer both full-service and self-service, and presumably expect the same net margin per gallon of fuel sold, this says a great deal about the savings that can be incurred by an FBO by offering self-service fuel. A recent trend in my business is the addition of self-service Jet-A systems, likely a result of the growing popularity of the latest light jet and turboprops able to operate from relatively short airstrips where full-service fuel is rarely offered around the clock.

Self-service gas stations were the reaction of the oil industry to the rapid rise in oil prices in the 1970s. From this evolved highly-profitable convenience stores that today often dwarf the “filling station” portion of such businesses. There are some lessons to be learned from this for airports struggling today to stave off the decline in flying activity and lower fuel revenue.

The GAfuels Blog is written by two private pilots concerned about the future availability of fuels for piston-engine aircraft: Dean Billing, Sisters, Ore., a pilot, homebuilder and expert on autogas and ethanol, and Kent Misegades, Cary, N.C., an aerospace engineer, aviation sales rep for U-Fuel, and president of EAA1114.

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