Soaring Aviation Fuel Costs Ground Many Pilots
July 29, 2009
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  • By Roxana Hegeman, Associated Press Writer

    July 8, 2008

    WICHITA, Kan. –Soaring aviation fuel costs are grounding many pilots from recreational flying, extending the reach of the economic drag on the nation’s general aviation industry.

    While much public attention has focused on the financial woes of struggling airlines, the myriad of aircraft companies that cater to private pilots are scrambling, too. Makers of piston-powered aircraft favored by leisure flyers saw their shipments plunge during the first quarter of this year, while pilot training schools, fixed base operators and others have watched fewer pilots take to the skies.

    Among them is Chuck Powell, 45, an aircraft mechanic at Hawker Beechcraft who restored a 1946 Taylorcraft airplane he flies recreationally. But so far this year, he has flown it only 15 hours — far below the 50 hours he normally would have flown it to this point in the year.

    It’s so bad that Powell plans to drive — rather than fly — to the world’s largest recreational aviation gathering later this month, the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture at Oshkosh, Wis.

    “I’ll miss landing there and stuff. I’d rather fly, but that’s OK,” Powell said.

    The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association surveyed its members in May and found that 72 percent of them reported flying less in the past year, with 61 percent blaming rising fuel prices. Pilots who fly for pleasure reported more of a decline in flight time than business flyers.

    The average cost of aviation gas nationwide increased 24 percent in the past year, from $4.62 a gallon in July 2007 to $5.72 a gallon today, AOPA said. That compares to automobile gasoline which went up 37 percent during that same period.

    Those kind of prices are keeping recreational pilots on the ground unless they have a specific destination, although it has had no impact on flights by the private business jets whose owners can better afford the fuel prices, said Kyle Simpson, who fuels aircraft at Midwest Corporate Aviation in Wichita.

    About half of pilots there are leisure flyers, Simpson said.

    “As fuel prices go up, less and less people are going to be able to afford to learn to fly, and possibly that will create a pilot shortage at some time. Time will tell,” said Alyson Elder, a flight instructor at Midwest Corporate Aviation.

    The cost of getting a pilot’s license has easily doubled in the past two years, averaging about $8,000 now, she said.

    Midwest Corporate Aviation is raising its aircraft rental rates from $129 an hour to $138 an hour, and it is likely to go up again in the future, Elder said.

    The cost of flying may already be affecting aircraft manufacturers who build the piston-powered planes favored by recreational pilots. On Tuesday, Cessna Aircraft Co. announced a program that offers free fuel for up to 18 months for new buyers of Cessna 182 Skylanes or Turbo Skylanes, offering to pay up to $15,000 of fuel costs between now and the end of the year.

    Shipments of piston-powered aircraft plummeted by 28 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to the same period last year. But shipments of business jets at the same time shot up by nearly 41 percent, according to figures compiled by GAMA.

    The increase is linked to international shipments of the business jets — particularly to emerging markets in India, Asia and Russia, said Katie Pribyle, spokeswoman for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

    Last year’s Oshkosh event drew 560,000 people and more than 10,000 airplanes. This year, there is interest among pilots in ride-sharing, and numerous fixed base operators across the nation are offering discounts to those who still plan to fly to the celebration.

    Powell said he figured it would cost him between $500 and $600 to fly his plane to the gathering, compared to about $200 to drive. This year, it will take him more than 13 hours to drive there — about twice as long as it takes in his two-seat plane, he said.

    “The advantage is I’ll be able to take an extra parachute so I can go to the drop zone. I’ll be able to take my banjo, and all the coolers and cans — where usually I travel light when I fly,” Powell said. “I’ll have just as much fun, but I wouldn’t be able to fly out.”

    Date: 2008-07-08