How to Better Control Your Fuel Costs

It forms a big part of your annual operating budget, but how can operators better control their fuel purchase practices? Dave Higdon offers tips…

Dave Higdon  |  12th January 2018
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    Dave Higdon
    Dave Higdon

    Dave Higdon was a highly respected, NBAA Gold Wing award-winning aviation journalist who covered all...

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    It forms a big part of your annual operating budget, but how can operators better control their fuel purchase practices? Dave Higdon offers tips… 

    Few are better placed to understand the relationship between cold hard cash and high-speed flight than those who pay the bills for your Flight Department. In these days of increasing costs, skilled managers add value to their flight operations by controlling all three major cost items: Flight crew staffing, maintenance and upkeep, and fuel costs.

    Setting an operating budget demands a working knowledge of all three items and how those factors interact. For example, budgeting for ‘X’ hours flying per year sets the bar for maintenance (based on hourly costs) and a concomitant estimate of fuel costs. 

    That’s simple enough, providing the person developing the budget recognizes that changing any one of those three factors automatically brings a related change to the other numbers. 

    In reality, plenty of people put tremendous effort into controlling their fuel spending. Though consumers lack any way to influence pump prices, they enjoy total control over when, how much and where they choose to fill their tanks.

    Since fuel costs account for the largest share of variable operation costs, managing fuel use and fuel purchases greatly influence the department’s budget. 

    Within this article, we’ll consider the steps needed to keep your operation on – or under – your fuel-budget estimate. Following are some of the best tips and practices… 

    Tip #1: Join a Fuel Program

    The Business Aviation community includes numerous vendors and program operators offering fuel cost control tools for those who enroll with them and use their systems. By contracting with vendors, these tools guarantee a lower price than the posted pump price in exchange for a minimum commitment. 

    Do check that a particular program (e.g., a card arrangement) is accepted among the FBOs and airports your operation typically frequents. You may find some adjustments are needed, dependent on the airports you use. 

    By taking these precautions, you will avoid penalizing your operation by paying for a fuel club membership that's not usable at the majority of the airports you visit. 

    Most of these programs offer guidance to help you use their cards. Once you have one, use the tool even if it doesn't always get you the lowest price. 

    Tip #2: Use Fuel Price Trackers

    Various tools and programs exist solely to track and report fuel prices at airports around the country and across the globe. The better of these trackers update daily, while the best update even more frequently.

    By entering a route or point of origin and destination, these programs typically will produce a list of airports along the route as well as their fuel prices at the time of the last check. A quick internet check or phone call can then confirm whether the posted prices remain in effect.

    As an added bonus, making an advanced reservation can get you an additional discount at some airports.



    Tip #3: Consider the Most Efficient Route

    Flight planning for fuel costs may not be an everyday occurrence, but on occasion a slight change in the route flown can yield big savings without appreciably adding to the trip length (thereby offsetting any fuel savings). 

    Checking route fuel prices – through programs like those noted above – may reveal potential savings by landing at a different airport for the meeting, without refueling, then, by refueling somewhere else.

    As an example, a trip last fall required us to make a technical stop that yielded a saving of $1.40 per gallon. On a 280-gallon uplift of jet fuel, that $1.40 of per-gallon savings translated to spending $392 less! Imagine savings like that multiple times a year. The habit could almost become a profit center of its own.

    Tip #4: How About Fuel Tankering?

    Where weight-and-balance considerations allow, some benefit may come from uplifting more fuel than a trip requires. Yes, it will slow your climb and could limit what's carried in the cabin, but the chances are that it won't.

    Many pilots like to fly with the fuel level suggested by flight planning; that is, fuel needed plus reserves for weather and a diversion. Carrying the least called-for saves fuel, helps climb performance and gives cruise speed a bit of an edge. 

    But if home field fuel costs are the lowest – and the aircraft is capable – tankering extra fuel can reduce total fuel expenses for a trip.

    That is especially the case when the fuel capacity allows for a round-trip flight without refueling. Even when an airplane can't tanker round-trip fuel, the destination fuel price may be less – which is an incentive to fully top off before returning to home base. 

    Tip #5: Slow Down, You Fly Too Fast…

    All aircraft offer a published maximum cruise speed. Why do we fly if we don't want to go as fast as possible? The answer involves another book speed: Maximum-range cruise speed.

    Throttling back isn't solely for ‘tailwind days’. Flying at maximum-range speed (even though you're flying a much shorter trip) will provide a measurable decline in fuel costs, with only a small increase in the en route time. 

    The vast majority of our trips are between 350-500nm. Sacrificing 40 knots on a 500nm trip may add 15-20 minutes to the trip – with a savings of 15-20% in fuel not used.

    What's ahead?

    Putting these fuel-saving steps into effect this January brings the potential of a full year of fuel savings compared to posted prices – because fuel costs show little sign of declining as we saw earlier in the decade. 

    Demand increases and supply adjustments have largely ended any semblance of a glut in petroleum supplies. The business turbine fleet continues to grow, and flight hours are up in many parts of the world. 

    Even as OEMs continue to advance the fuel efficiency of their engines and aircraft, the changes fall short of offsetting the higher prices expected in the next decade. Start practicing fuel-saving habits today and help your bottom line tomorrow. 


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