Fuel Costs Force Pilots to the Ground

Terry McKinney's plane spends more time parked at Manassas Regional Airport now. With fuel at $4.69 a gallon, he can no longer afford to fly every week.
Terry McKinney's plane spends more time parked at Manassas Regional Airport now. With fuel at $4.69 a gallon, he can no longer afford to fly every week. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)

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By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 25, 2007

The rising cost of fuel has found a new victim: the recreational aviator.

Pilots are cutting back on flying time. Flight instructors have fewer students. More and more Cessnas, Pipers and other single-engine and propeller-driven planes are staying grounded. General aviation is taking a nosedive, according to flying enthusiasts.

Terry McKinney, 59, of Springfield flew his blue- and gray-striped Mooney M20C from Manassas Regional Airport to Morgantown, W.Va., to visit family about seven times last year. An upcoming trip will be only his second this year. He cites the price of fuel, now $4.69 per gallon at Manassas, as the reason he's made fewer flights.

At his airport, fuel prices have climbed from $3.29 per gallon in January 2005 to $3.95 in January 2006 and $4.49 in January of this year. They're still on the rise.

"I probably cut back half of what I normally do," said McKinney, a 15-year flier. He used to fly at least once a week but has slowed to once or twice a month. Each time he takes off, he ensures that his two, 26-gallon tanks are full. His last top-off cost more than $110.

The 220-mile drive to Morgantown would take about four hours and cost perhaps $23 to $24 with a car that gets 30 miles to the gallon. The flight to the same destination takes an hour, flying at 140 knots (roughly 160 mph), and burns about nine gallons of fuel worth more than $42. And his 1964 Mooney is pretty economical, McKinney said.

Flying is not exactly a cheap hobby anyway. Airplane insurance runs McKinney $1,100 a year. Maintenance can cost up to $3,000 annually. This year he also spent $6,500 on a new propeller and $700 on a new transponder that allows him to be identified by air traffic controllers. Not to mention the cost of parking his plane at the airport: $80 a month.

Because of higher fuel costs, tighter federal regulations on flights in the Washington region's air space and the possibility of new airport user fees for takeoffs and landings, recreational pilots "are getting squeezed out," McKinney said.

To save a few bucks, Bristow pilot Tim Lewis shops around for cheaper fuel for his experimental, single-engine Van's RV-6A. For a recent trip from Manassas to Iowa, he checked fuel prices on the Web. "I made fuel stop decisions, in part, on what the fuel prices are," said Lewis, 45. Of course, he also considered weather and looked for good runway approaches. "You can usually spend another one or two minutes flying to make the decision to stop at airport A instead of airport B."

The cost of fuel has cut business this year at the Freeway Airport flight school in Mitchellville by 20 to 30 percent, said Marcel Bernard, chief flight instructor. He said he expects flight lessons during the normally busy summer season to be cut in half. Freeway is selling 100 low-lead fuel at $4.77 a gallon.

Bernard flew his family to Florida recently. "It cost me $800 in gas. I have to really rethink doing that," he said. For the same price or less, he wonders whether he could fly his family there on a commercial airline.

Gilbert Bauserman, one of the owners of Maryland Airport in Indian Head, said about 60 recreational aircrafts are based there. He said some airplane owners are feeling the pinch in their wallets.

"We always have people who own airplanes who are right on the edge, kind of like people who own boats," he said. "If you just barely can afford it, those are the people who drop off when the price of fuel goes up."

At Manassas Regional, fuel sales for single-engine planes have been lower every month this year compared with last year, said Airport Director Juan Rivera. Sales were down 6,600 gallons in January and nearly 9,000 gallons in April. The gap closed a bit in May, but sales were still down 2,800 gallons that month, according to airport figures. Those numbers represent some of the lowest fuel sales at the airport since 2003.

"I'd say six months ago you'd see a lot of activity. Now it is not moving," said Thomas E. Adams, chief flight instructor for Dulles Aviation Inc. at Manassas Regional. Adams said the number of students taking pilot's exams this year is one-tenth of last year's total.

Dulles Aviation was purchasing 100 low-lead fuel from a wholesale supplier for less than $4 in October, according to company President Joe Gardner. "It was 70 cents cheaper than it is today. It stayed up like that until February, and then in March it really took off. . . . In our book, it just hasn't backed down and it is creeping up."

At Stafford Regional Airport, pilots often take off and then land immediately to meet certificate requirements and keep fuel costs down, said airport manager Ed Wallis. "Rather than going out and doing a joy ride, seeing the countryside and stuff, [pilots] are just doing what they need to do," he said.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, based in Frederick, has received many complaints about the price of fuel, said spokeswoman Kathleen Vasconcelos. She cautioned that a drop in flight hours may not be caused by fuel prices alone.

"I think it is like driving," Vasconcelos said. "Perhaps people are cutting back, but everyone has their individual breaking point."


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