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updated: 6/3/2016 5:06 PM

Pilots want cheaper self-serve fuel, but CEA officials question savings

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  • A jet taxis along Wolf Road in preparation to take off at Chicago Executive Airport. The pilots of smaller planes at the airport say they would like a cheaper self-serve fuel option to the three fixed-base operating companies that provide the full-service fuel popular with corporate clients.

      A jet taxis along Wolf Road in preparation to take off at Chicago Executive Airport. The pilots of smaller planes at the airport say they would like a cheaper self-serve fuel option to the three fixed-base operating companies that provide the full-service fuel popular with corporate clients.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer, 2015

 
 

Some pilots at Chicago Executive Airport are pushing for an airport-owned self-service fuel pump that they say would mean cheaper fuel for smaller leisure planes. But municipal leaders say the fuel pump wouldn't be profitable enough for the airport to add it.

The airport, owned by Wheeling and Prospect Heights, already has three fixed-base operating companies -- Signature Flight Support, Hawthorne Global Aviation Services and Atlantic -- that provide full-service fuel options. Purchasing fuel through the FBOs is more expensive than it would be through a self-service station, the pilots say. The companies pump the fuel for the pilots, and they also offer amenities including lounges, showers and fitness centers.

"Our three FBOs are wonderful," Chicago Executive Airport Pilots Association President Madeleine Monaco said. "What I'm talking about is something for people with their own, probably small airplanes."

Prospect Heights Mayor Nick Helmer says the airport doesn't necessarily cater to the smaller planes anymore and pilots of bigger jets prefer the full-service fuel options. "In general, the parties that would gain are worth as much as any other party, but the economics just don't work," he said.

Airport Communications Director Rob Mark says the topic has resurfaced often in the past 10 years or so.

"Most airports don't want to be in the fuel business because it puts them in competition with the tenants," he said.

Still, Monaco argues a fuel pump run by the airport would bring in extra cash for the airport and reduce the cost of fuel for pilots of smaller planes, who currently prefer to fuel up in Lake in the Hills or Wisconsin, where it's cheaper.

Wheeling Village Manager Dean Argiris says a self-service option wouldn't lower the cost by much, and pilots would likely still find fuel cheaper in Wisconsin.

"The cost of gas is higher here because the taxes are higher here," Argiris said. "You cannot compare something like this in Cook County to something in Burlington, Wisconsin."

The airport is currently getting 12 cents back from every gallon of fuel sold by FBOs.

Monaco says she has found a company that sells the fuel equipment in a portable format so it can be easily moved to different locations. It would cost about $200,000 and the pilots association has already raised pledges to pay for one-quarter of the cost. She says she thinks the organization could raise an additional $50,000 for the project if needed.

The Lake in the Hills Airport, which has its own fuel service, had 34,000 annual operations compared to Chicago Executive Airport's 74,243 total operations in 2015. The village owns that airport and the fuel tanks, and the profit goes back into the airport, Lake in the Hills Airport Manager Michael Peranich said.

A full-service fuel model usually involves a fuel truck that will go out to the planes and fill them with fuel. Airports that have self-service fuel tanks can charge less because there are "fewer moving parts," Peranich said.

And while the self-service stations do require pilots to fuel up their planes themselves, Peranich says pilot training includes proper fueling techniques.

At Lake in the Hills Airport, 90 percent of the project was paid for with federal dollars, the state paid 5 percent and the airport paid the final 5 percent, Peranich said. Aviation fuel technology doesn't push forward as quickly as equipment at a typical gas station where motorists fuel up, holding down equipment replacement costs.

"We don't plan to change our equipment in the next two years," Peranich said.

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