Self-Service Fuel: Airport Money-Maker

An in-depth look at the benefits of self-serve fueling systems for airports

With nearly all of America’s 110,000 gas stations offering 24/7 credit-card, self-service pumps — isn’t it odd that only about a third of our nation’s some 3,600 airports do the same? To make matters worse, many pilots only have time to fly evenings and on holidays, when many FBOs are likely to be closed.

Consider the benefits of a modern self-service fuel station:

  • Available 24/7; convenient; safe.
  • Self-service fuel generally sells for less than full-service.
  • Reduces fuel theft through sophisticated pump controllers.
  • Web-based tools allow owners to monitor fuel operations 24/7 from a hand-held device.
  • Allows private or public cards as well as proximity keys for authorization.
  • Significantly lowers personnel and fuel vehicle costs.
  • Pre-engineered and pre-fabricated to lower engineering, site prep, and installation costs.
  • Modest-capacity systems sized for general aviation are highly affordable.
  • Strong cash flow makes private financing possible and allows quick amortization.

Why don’t all GA airports have self-service fuel stations? Arguments FBO managers have given in the past include costs, funding resource, limited use, and that fuel trucks are preferred.

While some of the above opinions were true years ago, aviation has changed. Small systems start at around $35,000; State funding is not needed as private financing is generally available; private jets and turboprops do use properly positioned fuel systems when available; and trucks can be expensive and require trained personnel to operate them.

Self-service fueling can lower costs and increase revenue. Add to this the growing popularity of unleaded aviation fuels such as ethanol-free autogas and UL91 — the timing for the investment in such systems seems right.

History; Safety

The first self-service fuel station for aviation was developed in 1987 by Michael Webb, private pilot, aircraft homebuilder, and owner of Oshkosh Aero, an FBO once located at Wittman Field in Oshkosh, WI — and later acquired by Basler Flight Service when Webb founded U-Fuel to support his growing business in fuel equipment.

Since we’re dealing with highly flammable liquids, built-in safety features for a modern self service fuel station are absolute necessities. With U-Fuel, the features include double-walled fire resistant tanks (stainless steel or internal epoxy lining in the case of jet fuel), emergency vents, a fire valve, normally-closed solenoid valves, and various other components required by fire safety regulations.

Popular options to enhance usability and safety include lighted covers; “kiosks”, or small built-on enclosures that provide a dry environment for transactions; electronic fuel level & leak monitoring systems; an automatic fire suppression system over the pump; listed tanks; and vehicle collision protection through crash posts/bollards or concrete partitions/dividers.

Site Prep & Installation

Site preparation consists typically of a concrete pad with phone and power hookups. 120V single-phase power is sufficient for most fuel stations found at GA airports. In fact, the low power requirements make the use of DC systems connected to a small windturbine or solar panel possible in many instances.

Installation involves the rental of a crane for a few hours and simple electrical connections and petroleum equipment checkout, which must be performed by a licensed installer and electrician.

Economic Aspects

Airports are often dependent on the 50-75 cent margin per gallon that is typical for fuel sales. In most instances, the federal government’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP) excludes funding of revenue-generating facilities such as hangars and fuel stations. Therefore, the total ownership cost (TOC) of a self-service fuel station must allow quick amortization of loan costs and have minimal operational and maintenance expenses.

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