Fueling the GA Economy

The Million Air fixed base operator at San Bernardino, CA

Whether you’re operating a plane, train, or automobile, your fuel price undoubtedly varies somewhat from place to place. But in aviation, the difference can be staggering. At one airport, avgas might be in the $5 range, while a stone’s throw away it’s $8.

Mac McClellan recently opined that this has more to do with the retailer’s operating costs than anything else.

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.

Mac’s article interested me because on any given day I’m as likely to be flying a Cub or RV-6 as I am a Gulfstream or King Air. I regularly visit full-service FBOs and unattended rural airports in wide variety of airplanes, and to me his thesis just doesn’t ring true.

While I understand how more services result in higher prices, it doesn’t fully explain why the fuel price is three dollars per gallon higher in some airports than it is at another field just a few miles away. A company that provides more services should also have more sources of revenue. Isn’t that the whole reason they’re providing those services in the first place? McClellan’s big-city operator has higher ramp fees and service charges in order to help cover the cost of providing clean restrooms and waiting rooms.

In fact, I’d argue that the big FBO’s prices should actually be lower not higher. These retailers tend to see turbine airplanes which buy large quantities of fuel. The G-IV, for example, frequently takes on thousands of gallons in a single purchase. The cost of labor on a per-gallon basis is quite low when compared to airplanes that only take a few gallons at a time. While the Gulfstream take Jet-A rather than avgas, it’s all profit for the fixed base operator. Turbine aircraft pay for lav cleaning, potable water service, catering, deicing, dish washing, dry cleaning, and many other things. The hangar fees for both transient and based tenants are also sources of revenue — consistent ones at that.

Mac sees those as justification for higher fuel prices. I see the aircraft owner or operator paying the full cost of providing those services, and then some.

My point is that FBOs with many services also have many sources of revenue beyond fuel, and since large chain FBOs can leverage their buying power the same way any billion-dollar corporation does, you’d expect their prices to be lower, not higher. By McClellan’s logic, a WalMart Superstore should be sporting the highest prices in town since they provide far more products and services than a simple grocery store.

If the fuel price variations aren’t due to service level, then what’s behind it? Perhaps part of the problem is that airports with only one service provider have a monopoly on the market and can charge whatever they want, knowing pilots have no choice but to pay it. It’s like a remote desert town with only one gas station. The price is going to be high — and you will fork over the dough because there is simply no alternative.

The aforementioned WalMart Superstore has to compete with Target, Sam’s Club, countless grocery stores, and many other businesses. Sadly, airports don’t work that way, and as a result we all pay the price.

Even with two FBOs, some markets are saturated enough that the fixed base operator doesn’t really face competition in the normal sense. John Wayne Airport is like that. There are two places you can find fuel, service, and parking at SNA: Atlantic Aviation and Signature Flight Support. Neither one of them could possibly handle all the business traffic in and out of the airport alone, so is there really much of a sense of competition between them? Perhaps for the highest margin customer: frequent visitors with large thirsty airplanes like a Global Express or Gulfstream, or high volume operators like JetSuite or NetJets. But for the other 80% of general aviation? No.

I don’t begrudge retailers profiting from their significant investment. Running an FBO requires major capital infusions and serves a small market even in the best of times. But I still don’t see how it justifies a 60% difference in the price of fuel. Inordinately high fuel prices damage the entire aviation ecosystem by discouraging light general aviation customers, decreasing GA’s utility, and driving prices upward for those who remain.

Look around. We’re turning into Europe — and where GA is concerned, that’s not a good thing.

Trust Us — We’re Professionals

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I’ve seen some ill-conceived policies emanate from the FAA over the course of my professional flying career. Some diktats are just busy work, while others fail to achieve an otherwise admirable end. But the worst are those that create the very hazard they are supposed to prevent.

Case in point: the recent adoption of 14 CFR 121.542(d), which prohibits the use of any personal electronic devices in flight. According to the FAA, this rule is “intended to ensure that non-essential activities do not affect flight deck task management or cause a loss of situational awareness during aircraft operation.”

Sounds great on the surface, doesn’t it? I mean, who could possibly oppose a rule which the Feds ostensibly see as the aeronautical equivalent of a ban on texting while driving? Keeping distractions at bay and pilots focused on flying has got to be a wonderful enhancement for safety.

But it’s not. The flight profiles of airlines, cargo haulers, charter companies, fractionals, corporate flight departments, and even private GA operators often dictate long stretches of straight-and-level flight with the autopilot on. Surely the FAA is aware of this. Now add in circadian rhythm issues associated with overnight flights, a dark cockpit with minimal radio traffic, and a flight crew pairing who have run out of things to talk about. There’s nothing to do but stare off into the inky darkness for hour upon hour. It’s a recipe for falling asleep.

Say what you will about distractions on the flight deck, but I’d much rather see a pilot peruse an issue of AOPA Pilot while in cruise than to have that individual zoned out or inadvertently napping. For one thing, the process of waking up takes time, whereas an alert human need only change focus. We already do that dozens of times on every flight anyway. Check in on the engine instruments, then answer a question from a passenger, then look out the window, then consult a chart. We do this all day long.

Is there much difference between reading a magazine and delving into the minutia of some random page of the Jeppesen manual when they’re both a form of busy work to keep the mind engaged during slow periods in cruise? I sincerely doubt a roundtable of experts in automation and human factors would have come up with a PED ban.

I can understand prohibiting them below, say, 10,000′ when the sterile cockpit rule is in effect. That’s a busy time for pilots, and non-essential items are naturally stowed at that point anyway. But electronic devices in and of themselves can be helpful in staving off the ultimate distraction. “Flight to Safety” author and Airbus pilot Karlene Petitt said it best:

Numerous studies have shown that one of the tips to help fall to sleep is to NOT watch television or work on your computer at a minimum of an hour before bedtime. The light suppresses melatonin production and stimulates brain activity. I’m not sure about you, but I want my pilots alert with stimulated brains. Give them something to do to keep them awake.

As many of you have probably noted, this rule is located in Part 121 and therefore only applies to scheduled airlines. From maintenance requirements to medical certification, their regs are the strictest around, so perhaps this seems much ado about nothing for a general aviation audience. But the FAA is of the opinion that this limitation should reach a lot further than United and Delta:

Recommended Actions: This prohibition on personal use of electronic devices on the flight deck in the final rule is applicable only to operations under part 121. However, Directors of Safety and training managers for all operators under parts 135 and 125, as well as part 91K, are encouraged to include operating procedures in their manuals and crewmember training programs prohibiting flightcrew members from using such devices for personal use during aircraft operation.

Will this eventually reach down to Part 91? Who knows. Even if it doesn’t, the real problem is that the FAA is spoon-feeding each and every individual action and prohibition to us without making allowances for the differences inherent in each type of operation. One-size-fits-all is wonderful for tube socks and scarves, but when it comes to flight safety, it’s just bad policy.

The smart way to go about this would be to leave it to the individual company, flight department and/or individual to determine what PED policy best serves the cause of safety. If you’re Southwest Airlines or a charter operator company flying VLJs, you probably aren’t flying long-haul trips and might be fine with reasonable PED limitations. Certainly using them below 10,000′ could be prohibited. But if you’re flying international cargo in a jumbo jet or hopping continents in a Global 5000 on legs of twelve or thirteen hours? That personal electronic device could be incredibly helpful in maintaining alertness.

Whether it’s a vocation or an avocation, pilots are a professional lot who can be trusted to make their own decisions about portable electronic devices.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

The Hacked Airplane

gulfstream-on-snow-gradient

For better or worse, the relentless march of technology means we’re more connected than ever, in more places than ever. For the most part that’s good. We benefit from improving communication, situational awareness, and reduced pilot workload in the cockpit. But there’s a dark side to digital connectivity, and I predict it’s only a matter of time before we start to see it in our airborne lives.

Consider the recent Heartbleed security bug, which exposed countless user’s private data to the open internet. It wasn’t the first bug and it won’t be the last. Since a good pilot is always mindful the potential exigencies of flying, it’s high time we considered how this connectivity might affect our aircraft.

Even if you’re flying an ancient VFR-only steam gauge panel, odds are good you’ve got an Android or iOS device in the cockpit. And that GPS you rely upon? Whether it’s a portable non-TSO’d unit or the latest integrated avionics suite bestowed from on high by the Gods of Glass, your database updates are undoubtedly retrieved from across the internet. Oh, the database itself can be validated through checksums and secured through encryption, but who knows what other payloads might be living on that little SD card when you insert it into the panel.

“Gee, never thought about that”, you say? You’re not alone. Even multi-billion dollar corporations felt well protected right up to the moment that they were caught flat-footed. As British journalist Misha Glenny sagely noted, there are only two types of companies: those that know they’ve been hacked, and those that don’t.

Hackers are notoriously creative, and even if your computer is secure, that doesn’t mean your refrigerator, toilet, car, or toaster is. From the New York Times:

They came in through the Chinese takeout menu.

Unable to breach the computer network at a big oil company, hackers infected with malware the online menu of a Chinese restaurant that was popular with employees. When the workers browsed the menu, they inadvertently downloaded code that gave the attackers a foothold in the business’s vast computer network.

Remember the Target hacking scandal? Hackers obtained more than 40 million credit and debit card numbers from what the company believed to be tightly secured computers. The Times article details how the attackers gained access through Target’s heating and cooling system, and notes that connectivity has transformed everything from thermostats to printers into an open door through which cyber criminals can walk with relative ease.

Popular Mechanics details more than 10 billion devices connected to the internet in an effort to make our lives easier and more efficient, but also warns us that once everything is connected, everything will be open to hacking.

During a two-week long stretch at the end of December and the beginning of January, hackers tapped into smart TVs, at least one refrigerator, and routers to send out spam. That two-week long attack is considered one of the first Internet of Things hacks, and it’s a sign of things to come.

The smart home, for instance, now includes connected thermostats, light bulbs, refrigerators, toasters, and even deadbolt locks. While it’s exciting to be able to unlock your front door remotely to let a friend in, it’s also dangerous: If the lock is connected to the same router your refrigerator uses, and if your refrigerator has lax security, hackers can enter through that weak point and get to everything else on the network—including the lock.

We can laugh at the folly of connecting a bidet or deadbolt to the internet, but let’s not imagine we aren’t equally vulnerable. Especially in the corporate/charter world, today’s airplanes often communicate with a variety of satellite and ground sources, providing diagnostic information, flight times, location data, and more. Gulfstream’s Elite cabin allows users to control window shades, temperature, lighting, and more via a wireless connection to iOS devices. In the cockpit, iPads are now standard for aeronautical charts, quick reference handbooks, aircraft and company manuals, and just about everything else that used to be printed on paper. Before certification, the FAA expressed concern about the Gulfstream G280’s susceptibility to digital attack.

"There's an app for that!" The Gulfstream Elite cabin can be controlled from iOS devices.

“There’s an app for that!” The Gulfstream Elite cabin can be controlled from iOS devices.

But the biggest security hole for the corporate/charter types is probably the on-board wi-fi systems used by passengers in flight. Internet access used to be limited below 10,000 feet, but the FAA’s recent change on that score means it’s only a matter of time before internet access is available at all times in the cabin. And these systems are often comprised of off-the-shelf hardware, with all the attendant flaws and limitations.

Even if it’s not connected to any of the aircraft’s other systems, corporate and charter aircraft typically carry high net-worth individuals, often businessmen who work while enroute. It’s conceivable that a malicious individual could sit in their car on the public side of the airport fence and hack their way into an aircraft’s on-board wi-fi, accessing the sensitive data passengers have on their laptops without detection.

What are the trade secrets and business plans of, say, a Fortune 100 company worth? And what kind of liability would the loss of such information create for the hapless charter company who found themselves on the receiving end of such an attack? I often think about that when I’m sitting at Van Nuys or Teterboro, surrounded by billions of dollars in jet hardware.

Internet connectivity is rapidly becoming available to even the smallest general aviation aircraft. Even if you’re not flying behind the latest technology from Gulfstream or Dassault, light GA airplanes still sport some cutting-edge stuff. From the Diamond TwinStar‘s Engine Control Units to the electronic ignition systems common in many Experimental aircraft to Aspen’s Connected Panel, a malicious hacker with an aviation background and sufficient talent could conceivably wreak serious havoc.

Wireless data transmission for the GA cockpit: Aspen's Connected Panel

Wireless data transmission for the GA cockpit: Aspen’s Connected Panel

Mitigating these risks requires the same strategies we apply to every other piece of hardware in our airplanes: forethought, awareness, and a good “Plan B”. If an engine quits, for example, every pilot know how to handle it. Procedures are committed to memory and we back it up with periodic recurrent training. If primary flight instruments are lost in IMC, a smart pilot will be prepared for that eventuality.

As computers become an ever more critical and intertwined part of our flying, we must apply that same logic to our connected devices. Otherwise we risk being caught with our pants down once the gear comes up.


This article first appeared on the AOPA Opinion Leaders blog.

User Fees for All

Highway at night

I’ve been flying sixteen years now, and the specter of user fees has haunted the general aviation community the entire time. Longer, in fact.

The history of these proposals has been summarized by AOPA if you care to know the full background, but one thing not many of us remember is that these taxes were first proposed to Congress nearly two decades ago by… who was it again? Oh, that’s right: the industry itself. Yes, it was the airlines who first urged the adoption of user fees “as a mechanism to fund the FAA in a balanced federal budget.”

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Learning to Fly — Without An Instructor?

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Just how important is the instructor when it comes to learning to fly? That might be a surprising question for an CFI to ask, but the longer I teach, the more cognizant I become of the many ways in which an instructor can function as a barrier to the student’s progress. And apparently I’m not the only one who feels that way.

Last month, Paul Bertorelli penned (keyed?) an editorial about simulator maven Redbird stepping into the training void created by Cessna’s shift away from the piston market. What caught my eye about the piece was this line:

When I was instructing primary students, I always felt that with the right resources, any reasonably able person could largely teach himself to fly, with the instructor intervening only as a problem solver and coach.

Obviously it’s possible to learn to fly without an instructor. The Wrights did it well over a century ago, along with dozens of other aviation pioneers who had no other way of acquiring the requisite skills and knowledge except through experimentation. But Bertorelli is the first person I’ve encountered who proffered the idea of learning that way today.

I can cite several modern examples of people teaching themselves to fly, from impatient ultralight pilots flying off a dry lake bed to those in bona fide four-place GA aircraft. I’ve met two people from foreign countries with no general aviation market to speak of who were very much like the Wright brothers. There were no instructors to turn to. These guys either taught themselves to fly or simply stayed on the ground. One of them even had to engineer his own aircraft out of random parts. A real-life Flight of the Phoenix!

It gets better: a few years ago, I had a Pitts transition student with whom I flew in the S-2C for a half dozen hours before learning that not only did he lack a pilot certificate, but he actually taught himself to fly in a Cardinal that his family owned when he lived in the Midwest as a kid. The most surprising aspect? His self-education was so solid that nothing seemed out of place or abnormal about his skills or knowledge when we jumped into the Pitts. As anyone who’s flown one will tell you, the Pitts is an extremely demanding aircraft, even by tailwheel standards.

Likewise, I’ve seen many examples of instructors who, despite the best of intentions, actually impeded their student’s progress. With the cost of flying spiraling upward, that sort of thing will wash a potential aviator out faster than ever before. Then there are the inevitable scheduling conflicts, personality mismatches, and CFIs who leave for that low-paying airline gig in mid-stride.

When you consider all the above, and think about the amazing simulators, computer-based training courses, and interactive electronic training aids — things aviation pioneers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries could have only dreamt of — the question isn’t whether one can learn to fly without a CFI. It was done a hundred years ago and it’s still being done today. In fact, we self-teach every day when we fly, don’t we? That’s why the a pilot certificate is often referred to as a “license to learn”.

No, it seems to me the real question is how effective our current methods are. And one of the best ways to determine that is to have something to compare them to. I don’t mean to discount the many vital functions that an instructor plays. For one thing, aviation is an unforgiving activity and some mistakes — a low-altitude stall/spin, for example — simply cannot be made if one hopes to live a long life. But over time I’ve come to realize that there is a lot more to learn than any instructor could hope to teach, even during the formal student pilot period.

That’s why I feel a major part of being an instructor is simply keeping the student from hurting themselves or the airplane while they learn how to fly. This isn’t to say I don’t “teach”, but rather that I’m open to the many different ways in which people learn.

I had one student who couldn’t land the airplane well if I was talking during the process. Once I shut up, he did fine. It doesn’t exactly stroke the ego to admit that sometimes the best way to help is to just get out of the way, but after thinking about it a bit more, I realized that’s what many of my favorite CFIs did. Sometimes less really is more. When they did speak, it was always something concise and well-considered. Efficient. Compact.

It would be interesting to see a study commissioned where traditional methods of teaching primary students would be compared with using the Bertorelli method. I’m not convinced that the time required to reach Practical Test Standards proficiency would be much greater.