Fuel Prices & Aviation Safety: Are They Related?

By Scott Spangler on July 10th, 2008

fuel prices_aviation safety Talking to friends, flight schools, and FBOs it is clear that I’m not the only one who isn’t flying as much as I used to. With avgas going for roughly $6 a gallon or more, depending where you live, direct operating costs are climbing faster than the airplanes they fuel. This begs an important question: will general aviation’s accident rate increase as flight time declines?

This subject arose during a recent lunch with Jason Blair, the new executive director of the National Association of Flight Instructors (NAFI). A designated pilot examiner and designated sport pilot examiner, he is a NAFI Master Instructor, owner of Dodgen Aircraft, which offers training and aircraft maintenance, and manager of the Allegan, Michigan, airport. Pilots are still flying, he says, but a growing number are only flying enough to meet pilot-in-command and rental currency requirements.

Common sense suggests that flying four hours a year–an hour every 90 days to log the requisite landings–does not a current, safe pilot make. But is this sense common?

Year

Hours (000)

Rate

1970

26,030

18.10

1971

25,512

18.20

1972

26,974

15.80

1973

29,974

14.20

1974

31,413

14.10

1975

28,799

13.87

1976

30,746

13.17

1977

31,577

12.91

Restricted supplies escalated fuel prices during the 1973 oil crisis. FAA data on GA hours flown and the corresponding total accident rate per 100,000 hours shows that the rate improved as flight time increased. So it seems that fuel prices didn’t keep pilots from flying. And industry and government efforts to improve safety had their desired effect.

Year

Pilots

1970

732,235

1971

741,009

1972

750,869

1973

714,607

1974

733,728

1975

728,187

1976

744,246

1977

783,932

But the laws of economics demand balance, an effect for every cause. It  stands out clearly in the missing variable–the pilot population. Lack of data beyond the number of active pilots makes it impossible to know more about the 36,262 pilots who stopped flying in 1973. My guess is that most of them flew for fun, and when they had to make a choice, recreation lost. I’d also hazard a guess this also played a part in accident rate improvement.

Year Hours (000) Rate Pilots
2000 27,838 6.57 625,472
2001 25,431 6.78 612,274
2002 25,545 6.79 631,762
2003 25,706 6.75 625,011
2004 24,888 6.49 618,633
2005 24,401 6.83 609,737

Fuel prices have been climbing for years, and the final FAA numbers for the first six years of this century, compiled by the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), illustrate the trend that will likely continue with the final numbers for succeeding years. The accident rate is more or less stable and the pilot population and the hours they fly are in decline. The only real similarity between fuel crises past and present is increasing prices. So, obviously, safety is not a price-related problem.

Based on past experience some might say that GA will rise again. And if fuel prices go down, it might. But when the world uses oil as fast as it can be sucked out of the earth, what are the chances of that happening? And what are we going to do if fuel prices don’t abate? —Scott Spangler

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5 Responses to “Fuel Prices & Aviation Safety: Are They Related?”

  1. "Data" Says:

    Some of the same thoughts expressed in this post over at CAPblog.

    Can CAP Become as Relevant Now as 1941?

    http://capblog.typepad.com/capblog/2008/05/can-cap-become.html

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Bill P Says:

    >>Common sense suggests that flying four hours a year–an hour every 90 days to log the requisite landings–does not a current, safe pilot make. <<

    But then again, if the only flying they are doing is in the pattern, then they are not exposing themselves to some of the other risky activities such as VFR flight into IFR conditions.

  3. Paul Says:

    Besides a lack of recency contributing to accidents I think fuel mismanagement could also play a role.

    When you out on the road someplace and your paying almost $8.00 a gallon vs $5.50 at home it makes you think hard about how much fuel do you really need. Maybe you wouldn’t have thought about it before, just top it off and go. But now, maybe pilots will try harder to do round trips and not get fuel on the road.

    My guess? We will see a climb in accidents due to fuel starvation. People just don’t want to put the fuel in.

  4. Bill P Says:

    “Tankering” fuel you bought at 5.50 a gallon may leave you with an equivalent amount of fuel that would not be any better had you just bought it at $8. Pilot’s should consider the amount of additional fuel burned to carry fuel for the return trip, before deciding if it is worth it.
    At least in the airliner world, the cost to carry additional fuel is surprisingly high.

  5. selena Says:

    Thank you for highlighting the effects of high fuel prices on general aviation, Scott.

    As you note, farmers, charitable organizations and small business reliant upon small aircraft have been decimated by the ever-increasing fuel prices since they cannot buy in bulk like larger businesses. They have been forced to pass on the higher costs to customers, scale back their operations in order to deal with the growing burden of the cost of fuel and many states have even had to cut back in airport projects.

    To check out more information on this, check out this one pager on our website, at http://www.aviationacrossamerica.com/pubs/Small_Businesses_F.cfm

    – Alliance for Aviation Across America

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