Just about any pilot topping off the tanks of a turboprop or light jet at the FBO lately has experienced sticker shock or at least a degree of buyer’s remorse. Of course, prices for nearly any fuel—and many other products—are way up these days. But it seems like aviation fuel prices have surged at a higher rate than most.
Here are the answers to a few of the questions pilots have been asking about surging fuel prices.
Why does fuel cost so much?
The global supply of crude oil has tightened as sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and the continuing war there have hampered Russian oil producers’ ability to market their products. Just as the crude supply shrinks, demand for fuels refined from it is growing.
The worldwide return to airline travel has driven up demand for jet-A, but the booming freight and shipping markets are clamoring for diesel fuel. Limited supply means both industries are paying more for fuel. And as the coming summer driving season arrives, gasoline production will put additional strain on the market as it vies for its share of the crude supply.
How much have prices risen?
Worldwide, the average price of jet fuel is about $4.15 per gallon, or about 149 percent more than a year ago, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). At general aviation FBOs in the U.S., where everyday pilots buy fuel, jet-A was about $6.35 per gallon on average at the end of last week, according to Airnav, which reports fuel prices from a total of 3,641 FBOs. Prices varied widely among individual FBOs across the country, from a low of $3.23 in the Great Lakes region to a high of $12.88 in the eastern region.
Two years ago, as the pandemic took hold and demand for fuel plummeted, Airnav reported a nationwide average jet-A price of $4.19 per gallon. At the time, an article in FLYING characterized some of the available prices as bargains for general aviation pilots.
How do high prices affect general aviation?
High fuel prices for both jet-A and 100LL can affect the number of flights private pilots make and the routes they fly. Some pilots at my home airport in New Jersey, where the price of jet-A is about 40 percent higher than they were a year ago and 100LL prices are up more than 30 percent, say they have cut back on flying in general and are taking shorter trips, often staying closer to home for the “$100 hamburger” that also might be closer to $150 today.
When fuel prices rise quickly, pilots might be compelled to shop around for better deals at other airports within a reasonable distance. Lines of airplanes waiting at the more affordable pumps are becoming more common.
How do high prices affect airlines?
Even small changes in fuel prices can have major effects on airlines because their fleets consume such large quantities of fuel. Shrinking fuel inventories, caused by a number of factors ranging from sanctions against Russia to the post-pandemic recovery of demand for air travel, have resulted in higher ticket prices while also driving some airlines to cut certain flights from their schedules.
How long will this last?
The U.S. Energy Information Administration says it expects higher fuel prices to continue at least through this summer in part because of high prices for crude oil. Increasing economic activity including airline travel and air cargo is expected to drive demand for more petroleum fuels, which also will contribute to higher prices.
Summer travel among general aviation consumers is also likely to drive demand and prices for aviation fuel. However, prices for crude oil and aviation fuel tend to move cyclically, so it would be unusual for them to remain high for an extended period. Indeed, the EIA forecast shows the jet fuel refiner price to end users decreasing in 2023 to an average of $2.65 per gallon from $3.11 per gallon this year. The price of fuel at the FBO level should also begin to decrease at that point. But the wait could be longer, depending on outcomes in Russia’s war with Ukraine, inflation, and broader economic trends.