13 April 2008

The price of Avgas - What to do?

The price of Avgas - What to do?

The data definitely shows that more Canadians now own private aircraft than ever before. At the end of March 2008 there were 25,244 private aircraft registered in Canada. During 2007 there were 659 private aircraft added to the Canadian fleet.

So more people are flying more airplanes, right? Maybe.

The numbers on "hours being flown" are harder to come by, as Transport Canada don't publish what they get from the AAIR reports. One thing that we do suspect from talking to fuel dealers is that over the last few years they area't pumping as much Avgas as they used to.

So what is going on? More aircraft being purchased, built and imported but flying fewer hours?

It is possible, because of two facts.

First, right now aircraft are quite cheap. The plummeting US dollar since 2004 has made most used aircraft very cheap in the past three or four years. If you are building your own aircraft then the plunging US dollar has made aircraft building supplies and US kits cheap. Aluminium, engines, fabric, instruments are all far cheaper than they were in 2000.

Second, gas is expensive and it is going up. Everyone watches the price of car gas and in the last year it has gone from a national average of 92 cents to $1.19 this past week, which is a 30% increase. BMO Nesbitt Burns analyst Randy Ollenberger is predicting pump prices of $1.50 within a few months and that it won't come back down, due to high demand around the world.

Avgas hasn't gone up in price as quickly in the last year, but some northern locations are already selling at over $2.00 per litre and prices getting near $1.75 aren't uncommon in southern Canada this spring. Given the normal price differences between car gas and aviation fuel Avgas will likely end up close to $2.00 per litre across most of southern Canada this summer.

So "airplanes cheap, gas expensive" adds up to more people owning more airplanes and flying them less. It isn't a good trend, but with strong and increasing global demand for oil, while world oil production is flat or even declining, what is the future for personal flying?

At least one company thinks it is electric aircraft. They have taken the concept beyond the experimental stage and are selling production electric aircraft today.

In fact Electric Aircraft Corporation has been selling their ElectraFlyer since last year. It is a single seat US FAR 103 legal weight-shift trike, with a Northwing Stratus hang glider-style wing. It is powered by an 18 hp electric motor that weighs just 26 lbs. Instead of filling up the gas tank you recharge the 5.6 kWh Lithium Ion battery pack. The battery weighs 78 lbs. A charge should take about four hours and would cost under 50 cents at the 8 cents per kWh we pay here. That charge will give you a take-off and a flight of 1.5 hours at an average of 5 hp used. It is able to fly on this low horsepower because of light weight and a big wing area with relatively low drag. The trike weighs 247 lbs and can be purchased complete today for USD$16,885.00 ready to fly.

There is more, though. Not only can you fly for pennies an hour, but there is no gas to buy, no oil to buy and the electric motor is maintenance-free. The aircraft is also quiet. With a geared prop that turns slowly it is so quiet that you don't need hearing protection. Your neighbours will love this aircraft, because they won't know it is there. No more calling ahead for gas either - if your destination has AC power then you can get a "fill".

The company says that it is "The closest thing to a magic carpet ride ever attained." They may be right.

Okay I can hear the grumbling already, "Sure, great if you want to fly some open air ultralight at 25 mph, but am I going to be able to run my SR-22 on a battery?"

Let's see: A 310 horsepower Cirrus is 231 kW. Assuming 15 minutes at full power and four hours at 75% power cruise, you would need a battery pack with a capacity of 750 kWh or about 134 times that of the ElectraFlyer trike. Using Lithium Ion batteries that would bring the weight of the battery pack to about 10,000 lbs. Maybe not.

I don't think battery powered aircraft are going to be practical above the ultralight level, at least unless some amazing things are done with battery technology.

There are some promising things being done with hyper-capacitors. They work like batteries storing a charge, but do it through banks of capacitors, rather than chemical means like batteries. Zenn Motors of Toronto are planning to bring out a new car soon that will be powered by an EEStor ceramic hyper-capacitor that will produce 70 hp and drive the car at 100 km/hr for four hours, giving it a range of 400 km with an electrical storage unit that weighs 300 lbs. The best part is that hyper-capacitors can be charged in a few minutes from special high voltage/high amp charging stations. This has promise for aviation applications.

One thing is clear: the private aircraft of the future will look different from the aircraft of today, they won't be 1950s airplanes with new engines. They will need to be able to fly on less horsepower and that means greater span and lower wing loading than we see today. It is not an accident that Boeing's fuel cell test plane was a Dimona motor glider.

The good news is that innovative things are being done and, thanks to companies like Electric Aircraft Corporation, you could be flying silently and free of high gas prices today, if you want to.


Adam Hunt said...

On June 9th AvWeb published an interview with AOPA President Phil Boyer in which he specifically addresses the subject of fuel prices.

Boyer describes the current rise in fuel prices as "a disaster area" and reports from a recent membership poll:

* 2/3 of AOPA members say that the cost of fuel is their greatest concern

* 40% have significantly decreased their flying

* 37% have slightly decreased their flying

* 60% of AOPA members overall are flying less

He concludes by saying that there is "very little we can do about this."

Adam Hunt said...

Beyond what Phil Boyer was quoted above as saying, it seems that there is more official news on the impact of fuel prices on aviation overall in the USA.

Henry Krakowski, Chief Operating Officer, Air Traffic Organization testifying before the House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Subcommittee on Aviation on Air Traffic Control Facility Staffing on 11 June 2008 said:

"I would like to turn now to an overview of what is happening in the NAS; the state of the system is the major determinant in our staffing needs. Currently, we are seeing a downturn in air traffic in most of the country. Due to the rising cost of fuel and other financial pressures, airlines are being forced to make changes. Major carriers have announced substantial reductions in their flight schedules and five airlines have gone bankrupt. These events have resulted in a reduction of over 42,000 operations from the air traffic control system. General aviation operations are also down, due to fuel and insurance costs, further de-stressing the system. With a few notable exceptions — JFK, Denver and San Francisco, for example — air traffic is down approximately 2 percent nationally year over year."

Adam Hunt said...

The price of fuel is now having a measurable effect on the Canadian airline industry. Today CBC carried a story entitled


"Air Canada cutting 2,000 jobs, trimming capacity"

"Air Canada said Tuesday it plans to eliminate 2,000 jobs and reduce its capacity as the company joins the list of airlines cutting back in the face of higher fuel prices."

This will increase the likelihood that Na Canada will increase its fees to make up for the lose of traffic volume!

Adam Hunt said...

The price of fuel is certainly affecting airline aviation in the USA. AvWeb published an article entitled "United Air Lines To Lay Off 950 Pilots"

The article says:

"United Air Lines will reduce its fleet by 100 aircraft, putting 950 pilots out of work, the company said on Monday. "This process is one of the difficult but necessary steps we need to take to size our business appropriately to reflect the current market reality," the company said in a memo to pilots. By the end of next year, United plans to cut 94 B737s and six B747s from its fleet. While United is the first major U.S. airline to cut flight crews in response to the current economic woes, USA Today says it may not be the last. The newspaper cites a recent study that predicts if oil prices remain at the current $130 to $140 per barrel, about 11,500 pilot jobs will likely be lost."

"Last week, hundreds of United workers rallied in protest of the airline's decision to set aside stock worth about $130 million for a new incentive plan for executives, while at the same time the company plans to cut routes and lay off up to 1,600 employees, USA Today reported."

It is interesting to note that the article indicates that oil will not have to go up further to cause massive loss of pilot jobs and serious airline shrinkage, oil will just have to stay at current prices to bring that about. Looking at the oil futures trends it seems very unlikely that oil will go down in price in the future.

Unfortunately the cutting of US airline flights will include to Canadian destinations which will in turn result in shrinking revenue to Nav Canada and the resulting risk of that organization increasing fees on Canadian aircraft to make up the loss.