Self-Serve Fuel Fills Special Needs at General Aviation Airports

Greg Gerber
Published in: 

Self-service fueling has been a fixture at general aviation airports for decades, but some within the specialized sector say its heyday may be just over the horizon.

Facts & Figures

Project: Self-Serve Fueling Station

Location: Charles B. Wheeler Airport, Kansas City, MO

Station Design:
Crawford, Murphy and Tilly

Self-Serve Equipment:
QT Technologies

Tanks, Pump & Piping: Garsite

Fuel Pumps: Bennett

Hose & Reels: Just Tanks

St. Clair...

Project: Self-Serve Fueling Station

Location: St. Clair County Airport, Pell City, AL

Fueling System: Syn-Tech FuelMaster

Fuel Supplier: The Hiller Group

Fred Stipkovits, technical support manager for tank and piping supplier Garsite, estimates demand for self-serve stations is up 20% to 25% in the last few years.

"A lot of smaller airports have to cut back on staff, and self-serve fueling stations allow them to deliver the same services pilots have come to expect," Stipkovits explains.

Syn-Tech Systems foresees similar increases. "It took 15 years for self-serve to come into its own in the aviation industry," relates Syn-Tech aviation manager Penelope Ellis. "But we see it as a growing market. It's often best for FBOs to take care of bigger customers, and it's not really cost effective for them to drive a truck and technician out to pump five or 10 gallons of gas into a smaller aircraft."

Both Ellis and Stipkovits credit the availability of state and federal grants to help fund self-serve equipment for fueling the up tick. "Little airports that want to get bigger will need to offer improved fueling operations in their proposals for grant money," Ellis advises. "Having fuel available is sometimes a necessity in order to get grant monies."

Recent equipment installations at Charles B. Wheeler Airport in Kansas City, MO, and St. Clair County Airport near Pell City, AL, support the suppliers' optimistic forecasts.

Why the Interest?

In spring, Wheeler Airport installed an M3000 Pro self-serve fueling terminal and Siteminder fuel management software, both by QT Technologies. The system was placed near the airport's new general aviation terminal, which is scheduled to open this fall.

The untended station will not only enable pilots to fuel their own aircraft, it will also provide instructions for them to gain access to the terminal building 24 hours a day, says airport manager Michael Roper. Pilots will be able to swipe a credit card to unlock the fuel pump, then use the code printed on the fuel receipt to enter the terminal to relax or use weather and flight planning equipment.

A closed-circuit camera system will allow airport officials to monitor the area, and an intercom system and courtesy phones will allow pilots to communicate with airport staff.

"Pilots have been asking us for the ability to fuel their own aircraft for a while. We just wanted to offer what the market is demanding," explains Roper.

QT's extended service plan provides the airport with ongoing technical support, replacement parts, software upgrades and shipping.

In addition to support offered through its official service plans, the company often provides advice on dispenser compatibility, help setting up credit card processing equipment and technical guidance to engineers and service companies involved in the design, manufacture and installation of fuel farms, notes Jerry Portocalis, president and CEO of QT.

Emergency shutoff controls, alarms, equipment and instructions are grouped together and located away from pumps and tank.

The company's most recent product, MultiDisplay, features a readout of the price, gallons and transaction amount that can be viewed from quite far away, says Portocalis. Such readability helps satisfy requirements for some state weights and measures inspections, he adds.

St. Clair County Airport installed a Syn-Tech Systems FuelMaster station last October - a move airport manager Larry Davis estimates has already saved more than $7,500 in payroll expenses.

"We used to run our own fuel truck," Davis explains. "With the self-serve fuel in place, we have been able to close early on weekdays, open later on Sundays and scale back the number of employees we schedule throughout the week."

Davis reports that pilots really appreciate the convenience. With about 100 aircraft based at St. Clair, he estimates six or seven planes use the self-serve option most days. On Saturdays, 10 to 12 use it. Pilots renting space at the airport are given a "smart card" which acts like a credit card to access fuel, but the charges are added to their monthly account.

The airport already had a tank and hose in place, so its fuel supplier, The Hiller Group, facilitated an upgrade to its system. Airport electricians installed a Syn-Tech credit card reader, but the manufacturer's technicians performed the final start up and training.

The FuelMaster system interfaces with the dispensing equipment to allow pilots to pump a specific dollar amount or volume of fuel. Once a day, the system's software processes all the transactions in its memory (up to 4,000) and sends them in a batch for settlement. All transactions, includingbatching, comply with PCI encryption mandated by the credit card industry, says Ellis.

Syn-Tech's 20 years in the industry help it assist airports with dispenser compatibility and tank equipment issues, she notes, and its distributors can "do the whole package" - from front-end engineering to final installation.

The FBO Factor

The new self-serve fueling stations at Wheeler were not installed to compete with or replace the fixed-base operation (FBO) that previously fueled all aircraft at the airport, clarifies Roper. They were designed to complement FBO fueling services, he emphasizes.

"We have an excellent FBO that offers exceptional service whenever our customers need it," he explains. "Self-service fueling is not an option that every pilot wants to attempt. For those pilots who want to avoid the hassle or don't want to risk spilling fuel on themselves or their clothes, our FBO staff will be happy to provide full-service fueling around the clock as they have for years."

Pilots who are comfortable fueling their own aircraft can save $1 per gallon and will often get underway faster than waiting for an FBO truck, adds Mark Van Loh, director of aviation for Kansas City airports.

"There is a niche market of pilots looking for value-oriented pricing. We're just trying to nail down all four corners of the market," explains Van Loh.

"If a pilot has a Cessna 172 and only needs 40 gallons of fuel, he may wind up waiting a while as larger aircraft are serviced first," he notes. "I've seen enough self-serve fuel ads in industry publications to know many pilots are familiar with them by now."

In retrospect, Van Loh considers adding a self-serve option to the downtown facility one of multi-airport system's "better decisions."

"After pumping $70 million into an upgraded facility, we were learning that some pilots were flying into surrounding airports to fuel their aircraft just to save a few dollars," he explains. "We decided that was enough of that, so we created our own option. It was a no-brainer."

Designing for Service

Ryan Lorton, an engineer with Crawford, Murphy and Tilly, was instrumental in designing Wheeler's self-serve station. The system's 12,000-gallon tank allows the airport to order a full truck of fuel even if the tanks aren't completely empty, which saves the city money, Lorton explains.

He also included a containment system for the refueling truck. If a hose breaks, the system will contain the spilled fuel and allow it to be pumped back out. The system was also designed to collect the residue, oil and other contaminants that are washed off the apron during storms. Runoff is directed to a separating device that pulls oil particles out of the water so it can be safely discharged.

Placing the station in the middle of the facility presented additional challenges. Lorton had to configure the space with an area large enough to allow multiple aircraft to navigate around the tanks, yet ensure that the bollards protecting the system were not installed within a federally mandated object-free area.

Setting the heavy tank with two large fuel pumps was another test. "The contractor invested countless hours preparing for the tank's arrival," he recalls. "The installation of multiple underground electric wires and conduits routed to the tank location prior to pouring the concrete fuel apron, and construction of the footings at the proper spacing and elevation were also challenging. They required precision placement for the proper functioning of the tank once it was delivered."

The new fueling station is part of a major overhaul at Wheeler that included construction of 96 new hangars last year. The self-serve fueling facility was designed into an expanded apron to provide aircraft ample room to maneuver and park. Three aircraft can now park near the pumps at the same time.

Although officials at Wheeler considered several different systems, they chose Garsite to support a local company and save several thousand dollars of freight charges, explains Roper. The most important aspect, says Roper, was Garsite's ability to offer technical support during design and installation.

"There are a lot of critical decisions that go into designing a fueling station," he explains. "This being our first time installing such a system, we relied heavily on Garsite's industry knowledge and technical support capability."

Design & Installation Tips

Personnel from Garsite, Syn-Tech and QT Technologies offer the following advice to airports considering a self-service fueling station:

• Make sure fuel farm components are compatible with self-serve equipment. Some dispensers not specifically designed for aviation applications may require additional equipment in order to interface with one another.

• Position the terminal close to the dispensers and hoses; many self-serve terminals "time-out" when there is a delay in activity.

• Orient self-serve stations to the north or east to avoid sun glare. Some information displays are difficult to read in bright conditions.

• Check with your local fire marshal for design codes about placement of fuel farm components, such as emergency shutoff switches.

• Determine whether the system will need a dedicated voice-grade phone line for credit card authorizations before equipment is installed.

• Research life expectancy, availability of replacement parts and service options when selecting equipment.

• Consider relative value and savings associated with using local electrician vs. manufacturer's technicians for installation, start-up and initial training. (Syn-Tech requires school-trained technicians for its equipment.)

Garsite, for example, recommended that the airport retrofit its primary tank with a recovery tank, which has proven to be a very cost-effective option, reports Roper.

Quality assurance procedures require technicians to test each station daily by pumping out several gallons of fuel into a white bucket. Without a product recovery system, the airport would have to throw away almost 1,500 gallons of fuel a year. A small stainless-steel drum piped directly to the fuel tank allows crews at Wheeler to put fuel that passes quality tests back into the recovery system.

Pilots appreciate the system's self-rewinding electric drum, because dragging hoses to and from an aircraft can be cumbersome, explains Roper. It also helps keep the area clean and tidy, he notes.

One pump delivers fuel at a rate of 29 gallons per minute, while the other operates in the 13- to 14-gallon-per-minute range, reports Roper. Most light aircraft pilots don't notice the difference in rates, but larger twin-engine aircraft require a higher fuel volume for efficiency, he qualifies.

"We're experimenting with the optimum rates for pumps to deliver the fuel," Roper relates. "We don't want to increase it to the point that fuel is splashing in the tank and creating static electricity that could spark a fire."

Should a fire occur, an 80-pound wheeled extinguisher, remote emergency fuel shutoff button and fire alarm pull are stationed next to the terminal. A "Code Blue" emergency phone connects people near the pump with the airport's dispatch center.

Although federal regulations require the airport to have two fire extinguishers available at the fueling station, Wheeler installed four cabinets containing Purple-K fire suppression agent. Detailed operating instructions attached to the pump, along with the ability to talk to a real person, make the system almost foolproof, says Roper.

Preparing for the Future

By installing two pumps, Wheeler provided itself with a backup if one pump is out of order. It also installed the foundation and plumbed electrical conduit for a future second tank as well. It was significantly less expensive to add the infrastructure for a second tank to the existing project than it would be to install it later, Roper explains. It also prepares the airport for the anticipated removal of lead from Avgas.

"In a few years, I suspect we will be transitioning from leaded fuel to a new fuel," says Roper. "We decided to put in the foundation, barriers and electrical conduit for a second tank so that we can have it ready for operation relatively quickly, should we ever need it."

Whatever the fuel type, some pilots will always prefer to pump it themselves - a perspective Syn-Tech's Ellis fully understands as a commercial pilot. "If you have a $250,000 aircraft, would you want just anybody dragging hoses and moving equipment around your baby?" she asks. "It's not that they don't trust FBO employees, but many pilots are just more comfortable working around their own aircraft."

Garsite's Stipkovits agrees: "A lot of pilots are weekend warriors who are in it for the love of the sport. Fueling their own planes is part of the experience. They put a lot of time into maintaining their aircraft and keeping it looking sharp. They often trust themselves to fuel their aircraft more than a line guy."

The ability to offer fuel service 24/7 to any pilot with a credit card is the most important advantage of self-serve stations, he says.

"I'm a pilot myself and belong to a local flight club," he notes. "Before we go to our base, we will go to local airports with self-serve capability where it's 15 to 20 cents cheaper, or even up to 50 cents depending upon the size of the FBO."

Self-service options can even help increase fuel sales, maintains Stipkovits. "If a pilot is flying at night and needs fuel, he'll check his list of 24-hour airports and drop in. That's business the airport wouldn't otherwise get," he explains.

Fuel Operations

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Download the whitepaper: 2022 Charlotte Douglas International Airport Report of Achievement.



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