Archive for Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Rising aviation fuel prices contribute to emptier skies over Lawrence

Seth Fox, of Atchison, often travels to Lawrence Municipal Airport in his Cessna 150d. It costs Fox more than $110 to fill the Cessna's tank.

Seth Fox, of Atchison, often travels to Lawrence Municipal Airport in his Cessna 150d. It costs Fox more than $110 to fill the Cessna's tank.

May 31, 2011



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This graphic compares the cost and time of flying and driving to Hays, Wichita and Kansas City from Lawrence.

This graphic compares the cost and time of flying and driving to Hays, Wichita and Kansas City from Lawrence.

Seth Fox, owner of High Plains Inc., a liquor distillery in Atchison, said he flies for recreation.

Seth Fox, owner of High Plains Inc., a liquor distillery in Atchison, said he flies for recreation.

About this series

Kansas University School of Journalism students in the advanced classes of Scott Reinardy, Julie Denesha and Mike Williams produced this series about the effects of escalating gasoline prices in Lawrence. This is Part 3.

Read Part 1 and Part 2.

If the price of aviation fuel continues to rise, Seth Fox said he’ll fill his plane with ordinary gasoline.

After landing his two-seat Cessna at Lawrence Municipal Airport, Fox, a pilot from Atchison, said he wasn’t kidding about the gas. He’s done it before, although it did cause the plane’s single engine to fail during landing. Fox said that was “no big deal.”

“I’d switch to high octane,” he said. “It burns better.”

Aviation fuel prices, just like gasoline, continue to climb. But while gasoline hasn’t yet reached $4 per gallon locally, owners of private aircraft generally pay at least $5 per gallon.

At Lawrence Municipal Airport, Hetrick Air Services Inc. offers refueling service at $5.88 per gallon. According to AirNav, an aviation information service based in Atlanta, fuel in Kansas City, Chicago and Dallas is more than $6 per gallon. In Washington, D.C., it’s more than $8. Nationally, the average wholesale price of aviation fuel rose almost 25 percent in the first three months of 2011.

Runway clearance

On this day, Fox was the only pilot in sight. He parked his Cessna next to the lone King Air 350 propeller plane on the tarmac.

Airport operator Lloyd Hetrick said fewer planes have been coming through the airport since 2008. He owns Hetrick Air Services, and his 22 employees account for about half of the airport staff.

“Our traffic is down, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “But probably what’s affecting us most, and eating into profits, is the price of fuel.”

Hetrick said there have been no layoffs because of the downturn, and he didn’t expect any. But less money moving through the airport means less tax revenue for the city. A 2009 economic impact study by the Kansas Department of Transportation estimated that Lawrence’s airport contributed $10.7 million to the region’s economy through payroll, purchases and taxes.

Because the municipal airport does not operate a control tower, exact figures relating to its traffic are not available. But estimates provided by the city government as part of an airport study show a significant drop in traffic. In 2001, total operations — takeoffs and landings — were estimated at more than 31,000. In 2009, FAA estimates showed more than 34,000 operations, but that figure dropped below 32,000 in 2010, a decline of nearly 6 percent.

Hetrick said the airport averages about 50 operations per day. At that rate, the airport would handle fewer than 20,000 operations this year.

The decline isn’t just local. The Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association reports that, nationally, 1.4 million small aircraft were no longer on airport traffic logs between 2008 and 2010.

Institutions such as Kansas University have also reduced chartered flights.

At Lawrence Municipal, not far from Fox’s Cessna, KU’s eight-seat Cessna Citation Bravo sits in a private hangar. The Cessna carries university staff on fund-raising and recruiting trips but flies less often now than it did three years ago. KU also maintains partial ownership of a six-seat King Air C-90B in Kansas City. University flights have dropped from more than 400 in 2007 to fewer than 300 in 2010, according to Jill Jess, a university spokeswoman. She said the reduction in flights was largely due to university budget cuts.

Those flying university aircraft can purchase fuel at a discount because KU belongs to a corporate aircraft association. At $4.55 per gallon, KU does better than Fox, the private pilot who paid $5.40 when he filled up in Atchison. Even so, KU spent $727,600 to maintain the aircraft in 2010, up from less than $700,000 in 2007.

KUMC Outreach reduction

Departments such as KU Athletics and KU Medical Center pay the university for fuel and other flight costs when they use the planes. KU Med’s rural outreach program accounts for about 60 percent of the university flights. It, too, is feeling the pinch of rising fuel prices.

The medical center’s rural outreach program flies cancer specialists and other physicians across Kansas to treat patients. Dave Cook, assistant vice chancellor of the outreach program, said flying was often the only way specialists could easily reach patients in small towns.

“In Hays, Garden City, Goodland, there just aren’t that many oncologists or rheumatologists,” Cook said. “So people don’t have access.”

While driving or flying commercially is often cheaper, physicians with morning and evening rounds do not have time to drive several hours to Garden City and back or wait in airports, Cook said. But he said budget cuts and increased fuel costs oblige KU Med to stretch its travel dollars. To save money, KU Med physicians sometimes practice “tele-medicine,” meeting with patients via Internet video software.

Cook said he’s not sure what the future holds for the program.

“The way things are going, as we look into the future, it’s a little scary,” he said. “Everything is under the microscope.”

Friendly, empty skies

Fox owns High Plains Inc., a liquor distillery in Atchison. He flies for recreation and said his Cessna “just sips the fuel” at 5.5 gallons per hour. Because the plane is paid off, it doesn’t cost him much, but if the day comes when he can’t afford fuel, he’ll sell it. He said he thinks other pilots, saddled with loan payments, higher fuel costs and other pressures in a down economy, have already sold theirs.

That’s why airports such as Lawrence’s have seen fewer planes on the runway in the past three years. A city study projects future increases in traffic as the economy recovers and Lawrence air traffic follows national trends upward at a rate of about 3,000 operations every five years. But for now, the skies are emptier than they used to be.


furman 2 years, 10 months ago

first of all i got some bad 87 oct gas and was a one time event back in 1995. and yes it is stc'd for 87 oct. my attemps to extract usable fuel from baby seals has failed. which isn't all bad because i found out that this type of fuel production is frowned upon.

chill out people you are way too serious. have a good summer!


kernal 2 years, 10 months ago

This story confirms what many of us already thought - we do NOT need to spend tax payers money to enlarge this airport.


wprop 2 years, 10 months ago

the airport has been an endless money pit.....remember when they spent multi-millions on "improvements" so as to cash in on the traffic from the NASCAR races... ha ...or our "cargo Cult" terminal where not a sigle sceduled plane has landed in 25 + years....They always lie abuout "traffic"....over the years it has averaged approx. $41.00 per "operation" paid by Lawrence tax payers...enjoy yer hobby boys...and shut down the arts.....


Lawrence_Pilot 2 years, 10 months ago

I love the way the attached map graphic compares the cost of driving a Prius to an airplane. Why not a bicycle, too? Chigga, puhleez.


Lawrence_Pilot 2 years, 10 months ago

No, car gas doesn't make airplane engines quit. Note that this was written by student journalists. And it shows.

Tens of thousands of 4-seat and 2-seat airplanes operate on car gas. 86 octane is usually good enough, but most pilots use premium 91 octane (no ethanol allowed, by the way...rots the rubber fuel tanks and seals!) Airports sell 100 octane, which can be used in every piston-engine aircraft but which is required in aircraft with bigger engines and higher compression ratios.

Really, there was one sentence of information here that was useful: "Air traffic at Lawrence Municipal Airport and thousands like it have seen a 10-20% decline in traffic since 2008." That's really all you need to know. But it's not about the fuel as much as it is about the economy. And, since this year's fuel price increases were relatively short, I doubt there is anything but anecdotal evidence that the recent runup curtailed air traffic.

I love the way the "reporters" could only find one lone pilot, of a 2-seat airplane, to interview...they didn't look too hard. The airport could have put them in touch with many others if they'd bothered to ask.


Darin Wade 2 years, 10 months ago

      All types motorist should stop and think fuel is costly to make since ten years we have taken advantage of lower fuel advantages for twenty five years.

  Now is the time to switch to grain alternative fuel which was shunned for a decade and a half this in chance gives america's aviation industry to develop fuel economy planes in wichita "boeing' aviation plant is in its planning of alternative fuel development.

Pywacket 2 years, 10 months ago

Clovis~ I, too, thought that detail was startling:

"....he wasn’t kidding about the gas. He’s done it before, although it did cause the plane’s single engine to fail during landing. Fox said that was “no big deal.”

No big deal? Seriously?


clovis_sangrail 2 years, 10 months ago

That's what we need -- someone hobby-flying over Lawrence using gas that he knows can cause the engine to conk out just to save a few bucks. Let's just hope that when it happens, he comes down somewhere unpopulated so the only harm is to himself.

I have no more sympathy for someone who can afford an airplane but cannot afford the upkeep than I have for the person who bought too much house and cannot keep up the payments on the wide-screen TV and the Lexus lease.


TheBigW 2 years, 10 months ago

What is really funny is I tried to start an "adventure sports/sightseeing" type business using the airport about three years ago and some of the same people quoted in this story are the same people who where telling the city and trying to tell the FAA there is too much air traffic to allow any such type of business like that here in Lawrence, not no, but hell no!

We would have be looking to buy many gallons of 100LL a year and fly about 8 to 10 hrs a week or more, adding to the TO&L cycle counts (used to get larger grant funding contracts to improve airports) and it's a business geared to marketing locally as well as to the 5 or 6 counties around here to try to bring people to town & airport to...... get this..... SPEND THEIR MONEY! ( I know what a stupid idea, imagine that, get people to come to town to spend money when it's not a game day, wow who would have thunk it)

NOPE, too much air traffic here for that, you should open your business in Gardner Ks., They said...... ain't that right boys....... that's what you all said isn't it..... Said something like that to those other folks about 2005 too didn't you..... yup, public record.

Oh yea, the hicks in the sticks, Lawrence, the good old boy network...... Proven by the media to be liars!

Thanks: Ian Cummings, look forward to sending this story to some people Washington DC.


d_prowess 2 years, 10 months ago

Does anyone have any idea how fast the plane the Fox owns is? It seems crazy that he could fly for an hour and only use up 5.5 gallons of fuel and so I was wondering how far that might get him.


nedcolt 2 years, 10 months ago

Hey,,lets put a few more million in airport...


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