July 4, 2008

High Cost Of Fuel Grounds Some Of State’s Pilots

By Sara Polsky, The Hartford Courant, Conn.

Jul. 4--Pilots have an expression: the "$100 dollar cheeseburger pilot," referring to a pilot who flies for pleasure.

But "we're going to have to change it to a $500 cheeseburger pilot soon," said Arian Prevalla, director of Connecticut Flight Academy, a flight school based at Hartford's Brainard Airport.

At Brainard, fuel has gone up a dollar per gallon since January, according to Thomas Vrissis, another pilot who flies there. These days, that's not an unusual price change.

As auto fuel prices have skyrocketed, so has the cost of aviation fuel. In Connecticut, "avgas" sells for nearly $6 a gallon and for more in some parts of the country. These prices already have led to the cancellation of some commercial flights, including Northwest Airlines' Bradley-to-Amsterdam flight, in June.

The high fuel prices are grounding some of the state's private pilots, too.

"It's definitely causing a strain," Vrissis said.

Mike Koczera, manager of Skylark Airport in East Windsor, has seen flying at Skylark, where fuel was selling for $5.70 a gallon last week, decrease about 30 percent as fuel costs have risen. Koczera now sells 2,000 gallons of fuel a month -- he used to sell 3,000.

A noncommercial aircraft can use 5 to 20 gallons of fuel per hour, according to Vrissis.

"We had to raise our rates to pay for the fuel, and we noticed a decrease in flying," Koczera said. Skylark used to charge $80 per hour for airplane rentals and $40 per hour for a flight instructor. Now the airport charges more than $100 for the airplane and $50 for the instructor.

Nationally, general aviation -- a term for noncommercial flying that includes everything from private flights to business flights -- is declining sharply. A recent survey of several thousand members of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association found that 40 percent of those surveyed reported a significant -- 50 percent or more -- decrease in their flying time because of rising fuel costs. Another 32 percent reported a "slight" decrease of 30 percent in their flying time.

More of the decrease was in recreational than in business flying, said Kathleen Vasconcelos, a spokeswoman for the association. That's also true in Connecticut.

"There are some people that travel for business and they're going to travel anyway. They can write it off, including private pilots who fly themselves," said flight instructor Terry Keller Jr. There are other private pilots for whom the higher cost of fuel won't make much of a difference, even without a write-off, he added.

But in many cases, "the hobbyist is flying less," Keller said. "They get their license, then they stop" because the cost of flying regularly is too high. Keller, who spends 40 to 50 hours a month in the air as a flight instructor, said he doesn't do any personal flying, and "a lot of it has to do with the cost of it."

But flying "is a hobby that people do out of a lot of love," said Bill Thomas, manager of Simsbury Airport. And that means that in the face of high fuel costs, many pilots are just adjusting however they can. "I certainly hear a lot of grousing about fuel prices, but there are certainly still lots of people flying," Thomas said.

"We're willing to sacrifice and forgo other luxuries in life," Vrissis said. "I don't go out to eat a lot, I don't buy a lot of electronics."

Other pilots have changed the way they fly. Koczera said he knows pilots who buy just enough fuel in Connecticut to get to Massachusetts, where gas can cost 20 or 30 cents less per gallon. Vrissis said he also sees people shopping around for the best fuel prices. Some pilots use websites to compare fuel prices before a trip, said private pilot Gary Rosner, who flies out of Skylark. But flying farther to find cheaper fuel can also compound the problem.

Some pilots also fly in groups to share the cost of fuel, Rosner said. "Sometimes we'll take three planes and maybe we'll have six people. We'll alternate who flies."

Over the past six months to a year, the instructors at Future Flyers of Connecticut flight school at Simsbury airport have altered their lesson plans, giving students more ground training and time in the flight simulator to economize, said Steve Smith, one of the instructors.

But others involved in general aviation predict that even as aviation gas prices rise and some hobbyist pilots adjust their habits, the increase in auto fuel prices will still be a boon to aviation.

"The cost of automotive fuel and aviation fuel are actually coming closer together," said flight instructor Tony Creswell. "I actually can save money by taking trips by air and then getting to the other end and making accommodations for ground transportation." Creswell said he recently flew to Pennsylvania to visit family instead of driving, a choice that saved him time and money.

Prevalla said he can take his family to Block Island for a day more cheaply by renting a plane than by driving his SUV.

People are also signing up in record numbers to learn to fly, Creswell said. Airlines aren't hiring many pilots right now, Keller said, "but that hasn't trickled down" to the student level yet. "If they're especially career-motivated, they're willing to pay the price. The price difference from what it was a year ago is insignificant when they've got a purpose to it."

Aspiring flight instructor Chazz Logue, 19, who began flying on his fifteenth birthday, agreed. The high cost of fuel "hasn't deterred me away from flying. ... Most of the pilots I hang around with are as career-oriented as I am," said Logue,who already works as a ground instructor. "It's just something we have to deal with in order to do what we want."

Aspiring aviation maintenance technician Linda VanDusen, 18, who is taking lessons toward her pilot's license at Simsbury, agreed.

Pilots predict there is a breaking point beyond which fuel will be too expensive for most aviators, but they're not sure what that price will be.

"If you had asked me a year ago what would happen if prices got to their current level now, things would have dropped, but we haven't seen it," Thomas said. "I'm beyond guessing. There probably is some level, but I have no idea what it is. We haven't seen it yet."

Contact Sara Polsky at [email protected]


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