By Andrew Vogeney
The marketing guy in me loves the campaign southwest launched around “Transfarency.” They invented this whole concept, including a brand-new word. And if you visit their website, they also give you the definition: Philosophy in which Customers are treated honestly and fairly, and low fares actually stay low—no unexpected bag fees, change fees, or hidden fees. I’m not too young to remember seeing a flight for $50 and thinking I hit the jackpot, yet the total fare ended up being well into the hundreds after taxes, baggage fees, seat selection, etc.
Transfarency is a great concept for the airlines. Unfortunately, it hardly exists in general aviation.
Let me prove my point. In early November we flew our 182 to Atlanta to visit some friends. Atlanta is a busy metro area and our friends live right in the heart of the city, so I expected it might not be the cheapest fly-in destination. I hoped to strike a balance – land and park somewhere reasonably close to my friends and still have some money left over for dinner.
All good trips start with proper planning, and this one started with several calls that went like this: “Hi, I’ll be flying in with my 182 and I was wondering what it would cost to park there for a few nights.” After explaining that a 182 is a small, single engine plane, I would follow up with questions like, “Are there any other fees? Ramp, security, handling, etc.? What if I buy fuel? How much fuel waives that fee, and how much per gallon? Yes, avgas…” The answers varied widely between airports and FBOs.
I found myself with a project on my hands. My basic Excel skills came into play, and before I know it I had a massive calculation to help me determine where to go. Ready for the results? For an apples-to-apples comparison, we would spend 7 nights and not purchase fuel.
If you guessed that Atlanta (the big one) came in most expensive, you’d be close, but wrong. The big name at ATL rang in at $431, which is second place to an FBO located at one of the northern satellites. At that airport I could elect to spend $555 for the week, or just $140 by selecting the other FBO on the field. You could argue that one experience might be nicer than the other (I didn’t check), but I’d rather buy a really nice dinner with the extra $415 in my pocket.
Based on these calculations, I chose the $140 option, and would still rank it high among the FBOs I’ve experienced in terms of customer service, amenities, etc. This was the second cheapest option in the area. It’s important to remember that we’re not just looking at one fee. If I wanted a thrill I could park at KATL for $60 per night… but with all the other fees, I’d be shelling out $117. Somehow this is still cheaper than my selected airport which came in at $124 for a single night after fees (the parking itself is $73).
As all good plans do, ours changed. When it turned out we’d be spending six weeks in Atlanta instead of one, I went back to my calculations. If I was willing to drive 40 minutes instead of 20, I could reduce the $140 per week to $105 all-in (the cheapest I found in the area). But it gets better… monthly tie-downs were available for just $62. Per month! There are deals to be had, even in major metros. So off we went on our relocation mission, and over those 6 weeks I saved enough on parking to fund my gas for the entire trip back to Phoenix… and then some.
Transfarency works great, and not just for Southwest. If I’m looking to buy a commercial ticket, it’s quite easy to compare fares and know to the nearest dollar what I can expect to spend. This should be the case for general aviation as well. One great feature that I use in ForeFlight (also available through other apps) is the 100LL Price overlay, which can easily save a significant amount in fuel purchases for a trip of any decent length. Still, that answers only one aspect of the total cost.
How can we solve this dilemma? The AOPA (and other alphabet groups) are promoting an effort called Know Before You Go to encourage pricing transparency. The APA supports this initiative, and we expect most general aviation pilots will as well. Hopefully, it will get enough traction, so I don’t have to dust off my spreadsheet next time my plane and I plan to spend some time away from home.
In the meantime, if you care about your wallet like I do, make a few phone calls before your next trip and go save some money!