There’s room for improvement at GA airports

I don’t like to pen anything negative, but I believe that there is room for improvement in the way that our General Aviation community conducts business. As most avid readers/aviators know, there are great things about GA that are first worth mentioning. We are blessed with a plethora of good airports with good runways, weather advisories, good lighting, and friendly operators. We have an awesome air traffic control system with professional controllers that help to make our journeys safe and enjoyable. We have great on-board electronics that show us the way, provide real-time weather updates, find the best winds aloft, lowest fuel costs, and identify the position of other aircraft. We have a friendly and helpful aviation community of very experienced and trustworthy operators. It is what keeps us in the air and coming back for more!

Avgas self serve
Does it require a type rating to operate these pumps?

However, there is room for improvement. Let me start with the “simple” process of getting avgas. The larger airports have the hard-to-read, difficult-to-use credit card machines installed. We have all struggled with these during a bright, sunny day, right? They work but not well. Even these hard-to-read, difficult-to-use credit card machines are out of the reach of most small airports. I have been told it costs more than $40,000 to install!

Let me share my two most recent experiences; the first was at a municipal airport in Indiana that had one of the hard-to-read, difficult-to-use systems installed. Due to issues with the machine, it was necessary to pay inside with my credit card and then use the airport credit card to work the system! Not too bad if you can find someone at the airport to gain access to the “master” credit card on a weekend. My last experience was at a small airport where an old ammo box had been installed next to the fuel tanks with a note that said “Honor System—No Cash/Checks only.”

Certainly in the age of Square and other simple credit reading devices, there must be a low cost way for even the smallest operators to set up a fuel pump that anyone could use without having to use the airport credit card or leaving your check in an ammo box!

Let’s move to another gas, AIR! Why is there not an air compressor near the fuel tanks? Is there concern that there may be a spark generated? Maybe, but it doesn’t need to be that close, just close enough to make it convenient. It seems like it should be fairly simple to pump up your tires when you need it. This air station might also include the right nozzle to allow you to fill an airplane (relatively) easily even with wheel pants installed. Self-serve is fine with me. I do it all the time with my car. I’ll even pay for it and maybe this could help offset some of my other GA grumbles below. I don’t have a lot of money, but I have even less time! Why should a tire with low air pressure ever take more than five minutes to remedy?

Why don’t airport businesses like flight training and maintenance shops work better together? Several airports have more than one business that conduct operations next to each other but never, ever work together. Why is this? Most are very busy but not willing to work together with other businesses at the same airport for a win-win. I understand competition but wouldn’t it make sense to the customer (you and me) to share the limited parts inventory that each has, share instructors, share expertise, hangar space, special tools and other (sometimes) underutilized resources from time to time? By working together more, we would see shorter turn-around for maintenance work, more access to instructors, aircraft and flight training, overall better performance by sharing knowledge and expertise and maybe lower cost. Why can’t GA businesses all work together to better serve their customers?

Rusty hangar
Is this really putting our best fit forward?

My last gripe and then I will get off my soap box. Have you ever thought about what a 17-25 year old thinks when he/she goes to take an introductory flight at a facility that was built during World War II? The airplane outside may be newer, but they are going to be turned off the minute they enter the building (trust me on this as my 22-year old son told me so). Future aviators grew up with phones, tablets, computers, and yes, video games. Most kids have got to be let down with they see the condition of a large majority of our GA facilities. It is time for a facelift! We need new facilities with the latest audio-visual technologies for these students, not a cold trailer with an overhead projector. Local, state and federal governments could and should be part of these improvements and they should invest in the future fleet of pilots, mechanics and other aviation related professions.

What can we do to help? We need to be the catalyst for change. While we individually may have learned how to get by with what we need to operate our own aircraft, there is much to be gained if we work as an aviation community. We all have similar needs and while we do all work together to help each other, there is more that we can do. We need to talk to our government officials and airport business owners to request their help.

There is a great and growing story right now driven by the global need for more pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers and other aviation occupations. We need to help tell this story. We should not wait for AOPA or others to lead the way; we must lead. Our regional and smaller airports are seeing increased growth. Let’s help meet that growth head-on with the right facilities and first class service!

We are all seeing a resurgence of GA activity. We are in a growth mode and we have all seen it improve over the past several years. GA is growing once again and I don’t see it slowing down. Get involved and push others to help us now and more importantly, the next round of aviation enthusiasts. There is room for improvement. Time to strike while the iron is hot!

27 Comments

  • Non-cooperation . . .

    Municipal airport with long established but struggling (because of mismanagement) FBO. They sold fuel, did repairs and offered flight training to locals.

    New business moves onto field, offers flight training to overseas students ONLY (EASA, not FAA). Old FBO refuses to sell new business any fuel – you are taking our customers – except they were not, old FBO only did FAA, new business did only EASA.

    New business became very successful, bought their own fuel tanks (100LL and Jet A) and took revenge . . . whatever the old FBO sold fuel for, the new business sold it for a nickel or a dime less. (Their profits came from the flight training, not the fuel sales, and they could afford to take a small loss.)

    Result, old FBO’s fuel sales essentially dropped to zero. New business had a very active fleet of 40+ airplanes which they would have been buying fuel for, but old FBO had a severe case of anal-cranial inversion, and consequently lost ALL that business, absolutely gave it away because of their short-sightedness.

    Old FBO has since had several new owners, but maintains the same stupid attitude, and they are still just barely hanging on. Some people just won’t learn.

  • I work as a CFI at a medium sized flight school. I have worked there as a fueler as well and still have involvement in the business in various capacities. Some observations:

    1. Our airport manager does a very good job of getting federal funding towards runway improvements. But he’s had no luck getting improvements to our buildings (I don’t even know if the feds can fund the buildings), which are 70’s era and old and sad, with decor from the 90’s at best. The building is tiny and we don’t even have a pilot break room, just a tv and couch in the lobby.

    2. Our school is using every available space in the FBO to operate. When we tried to get new buildings to help our business expand, the airport board shot down every proposal. They refused to allow us to build anything, even at our own cost. They made every excuse under the sun, including “we don’t want to be stuck with a building we can’t use if you go out of business.” Currently we’re now having to use trailers and satellite locations to run our classes, and having to leave planes tied out in the winter because there isn’t enough hangar space either.

    3. Putting up new buildings at airports can be complicated even without difficult board members. At another airport I worked at, we had a bald eagle nest on the east end of the runway, and a protected wetland at the west end, preventing runway expansion. We could not build new buildings either because of a historical graveyard that was discovered on the property.

    4. As you pointed out, putting in a new credit card reader is ridiculously expensive, to the point that it would be hard to measure the benefit to the business as long as the old one is working.

    5. Our maintenance shop is in house, but working with maintenance can still be tricky. They have their own way of doing business that doesn’t always click with a flight school. There are clashes between how the maintenance manager wants to do business and how the owner wants to do business. There is always tension between keeping the flight school planes running and helping outside customers.

    Anyway, it’s complicated. Airport boards are full of people with their own agendas, federal and local regulations can be tricky to navigate, and funding is elusive. Personally, I’m happy to go to a small, “plain jane” airport with a friendly atmosphere and prefer it to these snooty “Signature Aviation” places that charge you 10 bucks to step in and out of the door. I don’t have any vested interest in promoting aviation to those types, I’d rather keep prices low and the atmosphere accessible. I even like stepping into an airport with a historic terminal and seeing those old hangars on the field. It would be sad if they were all bulldozed for some fancy FBO. Despite the problems above we have no shortage of students and we have a great reputation in the area. We even have students from schools across town on our waiting list because our prices are low and they like the way we do business. I’m sure if you want to pay more for fuel so you can have fancy digs you can plan your cross countries accordingly.

  • You can have all the fancy buildings and nice interiors you want. Signature, Atlantic, and Sheltair are great examples. All you need to do is purchase $7.00/gallon 100LL and pay a ramp fee every time you park!

  • You can have anything you want at a GA airport, if you’re willing to pay for it. The FAA’s Airport Improvement Program provides ample funding for airport improvements. The shortfall lies in the fact that AIP only covers 90% of a project. The other 10% comes from state and local funding. The local funding is the constraint that keeps most improvements from happening. How much MORE are you, as an individual pilot, seriously willing to spend on fuel and fees for better airport facilities? Take that to your next airport commission/board meeting.

    • Lee, you make an excellent point. Yes there are Federal and State funds available for improvements such as terminals and hangars however, those improvements have to be weighed against other necessary improvements like resurfacing the runway and reliable lighting. Even if a windfall grant came along, the airport sponsor (Town, County etc.) has to come up with the matching funds. Sadly, many sponsors don’t understand the value of airports. Even the ones that do still deal with their own priorities such as a new completely outfitted police car or $60k for an airport improvement.

  • Ever since 9/11, just GETTING to an airport has all the charm of entering a prison…Chain link fence, gates, etc make it hard to figure out where to get in, and where to go.

    Not terribly appealing to potential aviators.

    I understand that there must be some security, but fencing the entire perimeter of the airfield (KERV?) is not the solution.

  • A positive note – take a look at what is going on a Massachusetts GA airports and new terminal buildings. MASSDOT recognized this issue and has provided funding to build new GA terminal buildings, knowing that AIP funds from the FAA do not cover those needed changes. Many now have new buildings that attract the public with flight school offices, airport restaurants, pilot lounges and meeting rooms – inviting not only the public, but the local residents. Check them out, as they are a big benefit to airports like 1B9, KPYM, KFIT, KBVY and more. It is a good example of step in the process to correct this issue. It would be great to see other states do decide to invest in infrastructure like this.

  • It all comes down to one thing… Money. And to get money in to GA, we need more pilots.
    Unfortunately many Americans feel they can’t afford it because they’ve been sold the idea that credit is a tool and have plunged themselves in to credit card debt, student loan debt, car loan debt, etc… And the government keeps taxing us to death in the name of social justice, climate change, Star wars, handouts, etc…
    None of this looks like it’s going to change anytime soon either.

    • Absolutely dead on correct. Not to mention the “jealous” mentality that a certain faction of our society promotes…. somehow if you can afford to fly then you stole the money from them. Sickening.

  • I agree, the self-fueler machines have annoying user interfaces and inevitably have bleached-out LCD screens and mashed membrane keypads. And the best part is the hopelessly tangled and shredded grounding cable!

    But do you remember the days before self-fuelers? Before every trip we’d have to telephone all the FBOs for info on fuel price, availability, and hours. Good luck making a random fuel stop on Sunday afternoon.

    So, yes, things could be better, but they’ve been worse!

  • I got a great laugh from this article and most of the comments because all of it is true and I feel your pain. I have a helicopter company and recently purchased a self-serve fuel system at another airport, so I see all sides of this article.

    Our company policy on the helicopter charter side is to never fuel at an unattended airport unless impossible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve landed for fuel at a self-serve jet pump only to find it inoperative, out of service, or out of fuel. It’s extremely frustrating and horribly inconvenient. I call ahead for fuel every trip now.

    A huge problem is that the self-serve systems are totally unreliable. After buying my fuel system at a small airport (which was very expensive itself), I had to immediately replace the sun-kissed credit card processing terminal that everyone was complaining about above. It was $12,000 for the new unit plus installation costs.

    To make matters worse, the new remote cellular device which communicates the transactions would kick offline randomly, stranding pilots that needed fuel. The manufacturer sent us a new unit which solved the problem, but a few months later the card reader failed. Again, stranding pilots who needed fuel and again resulting in a warranty unit being sent out. For whatever reason, these outages almost exclusively occur late at night or on the weekends.

    The biggest snag with these fuel systems is that they have no way of communicating to the owners that there’s trouble with the terminal. Unlike my Nest thermostats and cameras that send me an email immediately when they disconnect, I have my cell phone number pasted on the side of the credit card terminal hoping that someone will call me if they run into a problem. Most people do, but some don’t. If they no one calls me the number of pilots that get screwed snowballs and do my sales losses.

    The bottom line is, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the fuel business, a flight school or the maintenance business, if there’s a very small market, there’s a very small return. It’s tough to invest heavily in new facilities, technology, and business ventures when you only have a handful of customers.

    Nobody wants a $10/gallon FBO, but it’s hard to find a happy median unless a US senator or representative lives nearby and earmarks federal funding for the airport. Unfortunately, I think we’ll be seeing rusty hangars and sitting on couches from the 1970’s for a few more decades.

  • It does not help when the airport “owner”, often a Port District, will grant a 20 year land lease so you can build a hangar or other structure, but then when the lease ends you have to walk away from your investment because they will not commit to renewing the lease. It does not make a compelling reason to invest, nor to improve a building that only has a few years to go before you have to leave it behind.

  • Wow, here I thought my airport KDTN was the only airport with problems. So many of the same situations we have or had in the past. I only wish we could come up with some great solutions everyone could use to remedy all our situations. Technology doesn’t seem to be helping, only making situations worse. I’m all ears for practical solutions. Please God Bless us all in this situation.

  • I always wonder why more self serve terminals aren’t located in a small 48” x48” shed like a school bus shelter. Keeps the sun, rain and wind off the screen and the customer also it is a great place to post information.
    The $400.00 in materials is cheaper than replacing the credit card equipment. They have one at 5A1 Huron County Ohio. Works great.

  • Yes, there is ALWAYS Room for Improvements a General Aviation Airport. We, my wife, Annemarie, and I, owned and flew a Cessna 182, based a Dean Memorial Airport (5B9) in North Haverhill. New Hampshire. We, along with ALL the ‘folks’ that had an airplane based at 5B9, and the local community members spent many, MANY hours improving the airport. In fact, we sponsored and lead an “Dean Memorial Airport (5B9) Awareness Day”, every year beginning, as I recall, in late 1970s. I was always a fun and VERY rewarding experience to meet and have conversations with community members… and fly sooo many youngsters receive an airplane ride and become an EAA Young Eagle. The first year we did this, pilots few ~25 youngsters. One year pilots flew ~150 youngsters…. really GREAT!

  • Robert, Could it be you you are visiting the wrong airports? Your expectations seem more along the line of tower based airports with a higher volume of airplanes. When flying cross country I tend to avoid these cheap fuel and no one home airports. Why? Because more often than not it has the problems you listed. So, I prefer to pay a little more and have better service, better building, better environment. Only when I am local (not cross country) do I use one of the cheap fuel airports. They are close by and I know them well. I know they may not be working, so I make sure I have plenty fuel to go else where if needed. I don’t knock the small low volume airports, they are good, just don’t expect much as they have decided to invest little. If you have a plane based at one of these airports, do you really want them to build new hangars and triple your rent? Probably not. Low cost upgrades for these airports are fine, clean up and paint would go a long way to make them better.

  • Great article! All is true..my homedrome is pretty “dysfunctional “ and transient aircraft are really not welcomed. Sad. ERAU pretty much owns the (huge) traffic pattern. We can do so much better, especially in this roaring economy

  • Some of the article I agree with. But, I for one, hated to see the rise of self-service fuel. In my younger years I was a lineboy at a mom and pop operation. They had full-service fuel, aircraft rental, flight instruction, and maintenance. As time passed, most of the airports in my area went from full-time operators such as this, to being ran by the local municipality. A lot of the airport operations turned into “convenience store aviation”. Self service fuel, free coffee and snack machines. The person behind the counter is either looking at the internet or their cell phone. Those people or the self-service fuel pump aren’t going to be there to help if someone needs service when it is needed. I am not for paying huge fees for simple things, But I am for paying knowledgeable people to operate these small airports.

  • Customer service. I recently dropped my airplane off for avionics work. The OAT was about 40F in drizzle. The line guy watched me reach into cold puddles for the tiedowns. The girl behind the desk didn’t look up or speak until I spoke to her. The promised two-day repair is still unfinished after two weeks. If it’s like every other avionics work I’ve ever had done, something won’t work when I pick it up and I’ll have to leave it again.

    This FBO owns several car dealerships; it seems they would know a thing or two about customer service. But you only have to be more considerate than the competition and, in the FBO business, that sets the bar pretty low.

  • General Aviation has passed the tipping point. It is now corporate, training and airlines. Recreational flying is the domain of the elderly and they can’t or won’t pay enough to keep GA afloat the way we remember it. Communities look at unused airports with dusty planes in hangars and rightfully ask if the land could be put to more productive and lucrative work. And another airport bites the dust.
    5G and 6G will make autonomous aircraft possible and when pilots are unneeded, wages will fall removing the last lure to the airport.

  • Personally, I prefer a less expensive FBO and low fuel cost to fancy buildings. Regarding the credit card dispensers I could not agree more – they are finicky and ofentimes unreadable, in an era where it should be a truly inexpensive venture (at the very least if one simply selects a fill-up). But as for the fancy building – no. I prefer to have a reasonably clean bathroom and wifi in a pre-WWII hut to an $8/gallon and $50 for a short stop. For those that care little for the cost there are plenty of expensive class C airports with a signature style FBO.

  • My experience as a young man looking to get my pilots license was that I felt like I was walking into a private club when I entered the local airport’s FBO. That feeling continues to this day, 40 yrs later when I go to a “foreign” FBO looking for help. Our passion would be best served by staff and local pilots reaching out to people who are considering learning to fly. Some promotional materials describing the process, costs and bios of instructors would also help.

  • In addition to an international airport in class C, my city is served by 2 GA airports in class D airspace with 5000’ runways, precision approaches, and similar hours of operation. One has a hangar waiting list over a year long, hundreds is GA operations a day, and friendly attentive FBO staff with up to date facilities. The other has empty hangars, long delays for services and fuel trucks, around 50 operations per day, and an FBO that hasn’t been updated sine the 90’s. The airports are 11 miles apart. Airport management can make all the difference.

  • I recently began my adventures into Aviation. Fortunately, I found a great Aviation Business and instructor. The whole team made me feel a part of their club. I began showing up just to see if I could help, or watch. But this is not the way in so many other places. In fact, I feel like Im entering a private Country Club setting, or a run-down backwoods setting and Im totally unwelcome. The atmosphere you set will determine how others feel welcome (upkeep, functioning, comfortable, etc).

    Aviation is not a cheap hobby or profession. From Ground School to flight hours, we are paying exuberant fees. Planes are not cheap, fuel is not cheap, nothing in aviation is cheap. But the pride you take in your airport, facilities, equipment, and surroundings reflect your interest and concern for your investment.

    I am working towards a Ground School Instructor certification and my ambition will be to make everyone feel welcome and a part of the aviation community. I think that the youth will grab hold of the profession if they feel comfortable and welcomed. Including them and getting their buy-in is huge. When people are appreciated and acknowledged, they will want to be a part of the community. At that point they want to help, they want to be included, and will work for nearly nothing. Rebuilding structures, painting, fixing, cleaning, helping monitor pumps and outdoor equipment, etc…. Pride in their places and aerodromes becomes strong.

    I dont have the answers, Im new to this life. But I am willing to work and help improve the aviation outlook and future. But people are people. Treat newcomers as friends, and treat friends like family and you can get things accomplished. At some point the money needs to become less important then the fun and enjoyment the hobby brings.

  • As an Airport Manager, we take great pride in our facility as a whole and continue to spend money on improvements to the facility as a whole. This includes much needed infrastructure improvements such as all of the pavements, lighting systems, fueling system, and hangars. All of which are very expensive.

    The FAA does not build buildings (there are a few exceptions) so this financial burden is on the owner’s shoulders or the FBO. In our case, we are an Airport Authority and act as the FBO. As a former corporate pilot, I have seen hundreds of FBO’s that include the good, bad and the ugly. These investments are significant. Hundreds of thousands, even millions. This is a great example of how public-private partnerships work well. The Airport Authorities around the US aren’t in the business of training etc, but they are in the business of providing a building to a flight school which “feeds the system”. It’s a win for both! The hard part is attracting the flight school and of course, money.

    The cost of running a regional airport is eye opening to the general flying public. Keep in mind that the FAA and State Department’s for aviation do not provide funding for the airport’s direct operating costs. They provide percentage based funding for capital and maintenance of the airfield and each state is different. In essence, we need to rent hangars and sell fuel! This is the lifeblood of the airport!

    I encourage everyone to support their local airport and support the airports that you frequent. We are all in this together!

    • Well-said Jason. I’ve often wondered why the government was so restrictive on the use of the funds they provide. Example: One airport has fuel, but no available hangars. Another airport may have hangars, but no fuel system. ANother has hangars and fuel, but needs another 500ft of runaway to attract larger corporate aircraft. Shouldn’t the funds be available for the authority to use in a way that best benefits that particular airport? Sure, there must be accountability, but One size does NOT fit ALL in aviation.
      BTW: You and your team do a fantastic job at the airport.

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