I think I might be an airport snob. I know, it is a weird statement to make, but I will explain. I have historically flown a significant number of hours in my aircraft each year for business and personal travel, providing instruction, and in my role as a designated pilot examiner. Most of my travel time is in light general aviation aircraft such as Cherokee’s, Cessna 172’s, Bonanza’s, etc. Last year I spent around 400 hours flying in GA aircraft.
In some of my recent trips I have noticed a pattern in my flight planning and the type of airports that I visit. I don’t stop at very many non-towered airports. In fact, it has almost become a pre-requisite that my stopping points be Class D airspace or bigger. It isn’t because I have any discomfort with non-towered airports or any strong desire to be with a controller all the way to my landing, it is about my perception of available services at airports.
This is somewhat hypocritical of me in my approach to cross-country flying, since in the past I have owned a Fixed Base Operator (FBO) at a non-towered airport myself. It gets me wondering if I would stop at my own airport if I was flying across the country. Sadly, I think the answer is no.
When I am flying long distances, day long trips, and travelling for business my stops require that I have services available. Some of the things that I want to be able to count on include the obvious: available fuel, instrument approaches if on an instrument flight, and a place to use a restroom. Yet others seem to be things that I have noticed are not always available but have become interestingly important to me.
I don’t want to fuel my own aircraft at a self-service pump. I want have someone do it for me while I go inside, catch up on phone calls, check my email, and use the restroom. I know it might save me a few cents a gallon to do it myself, but the time it saves me by letting me attend to other business has become more valuable to me. I want a wireless internet connection available. When I have been in the air for 3 hours on a flight leg during a weekday I know that when I land there will be voice and emails that are going to need attention. I need to be able to conduct business at the FBO during my stop for the few minutes while I am on the ground. Without an internet connection, my ability to do that is limited.
I need to be able to get food. This means that there either needs to be a restaurant on the field or an available courtesy car that I can use to get to food. In some cases, the option of having a pizza delivered to the FBO works. But the simple fact is that when I am travelling around the country in my own aircraft, packing a lunch many times is not an option and if there isn’t food nearby, the vending machines just aren’t going to be enough to get me through a full day of travel.
Sometimes, I need close overnight accommodations. There certainly have a number of occasions where the weather has stopped me from finishing my planned flights for a day and a close hotel has kept me from having to sleep in my plane or the airport couch overnight. I have been stuck a couple of times on an airport couch, or worse. One time I was stuck overnight at an airport in Idaho in February. My accommodation was in the entry way to the airport on the heat grate. These experiences have made me much more cautious about where I stop late at night. Many times my flights take me through airports late into the evening, where, if the FBO isn’t open more than normal business hours, I would be left stranded without services, so I try to find airports with FBOs that are open 24 hours a day in much of my travel.
It isn’t that some of these things aren’t available at smaller airports, it is just that many times I know that if I go to a bigger airport, all of the services I need will be there, reliably, and that I won’t have to do a bunch of digging in my flight planning efforts to ensure access to what I need. A significant amount of the time my flight planning is, pardon the pun, on the fly. The time it would take me to figure out if a smaller airport had these services just isn’t something that I want to spend when I finish a meeting in Oklahoma City and am ready to get into the air flying back to home in Michigan. So instead of spending this time, I just pick an airport at a larger town, typically towered, somewhere between 300 and 400 miles away (depending on winds) and within about 15 degrees of a straight line for my intended destination. Most of the time I am doing this with my iPad flight planning software, something that will require an internet connection at my stop to get me my weather updates before starting any future legs.
Looking at this trend in my flight planning makes me wonder how many pilots flying around discount the option of stopping at smaller local airports. My local airport is non-towered, doesn’t have a restaurant on the field, no courtesy car is available, and the nearest hotel is 6 miles away. Sure, there is wireless internet available in the FBO, but that isn’t listed anywhere that someone could find. The airport has only non-precision approaches, you would need a clearance void time to takeoff if the weather was below VFR (instead of making it an easy coordination with a tower or ground controller), and the staff is not on site 24 hours a day (many times not on weekends at all). The reality is that I probably wouldn’t consider even my home airport for a stop if I were travelling.
What does this mean for local FBOs at many airports? While I can’t be sure that others have similar travel habits, I have a hard time thinking that I am the only one that looks at these considerations. The effects of these types of considerations can’t be good for many local airports. In effect, if many others travel as I do, it means that many local airports can really only count on the traffic that is generated from local airport tenants, flight training, or the few transient people that are specifically destined to that particular community for one reason or another. This is kind of scary for the business model of local FBOs and airports.
On one of my recent trips, I made at least a limited effort to stop at non-towered airports along the way. Although, if I’m honest with myself, in two of the three stops I had previously been to the airports, so I knew services would be available, and on the third of these, Independence, Kansas, I kind of figured I would be able to count on good services since it is also the home to a large Cessna facility. Knowing that at least the basic services of gas that I needed would be available, in two of them I still found myself unable to get food easily, something that would have been nice during my eight hours of cross country flight either direction.
I am going to try to make an effort to diversify my airport visits in my upcoming travel, but I honestly can’t say how long that will last. I expect that this effort will falter the first time I get stuck without some of the amenities that I need. I expect if this happens my old habits will return quickly. The buying habits of pilot customers are something that we need to think about as an entire industry. The survival of many local airports may depend on some of the considerations that I have noticed in my own travel habits.