Why I Don’t Buy Fuel at Wickenburg Airport

Why should I?

Early this season, back in November 2009, I realized that if I wanted my helicopter charter business to succeed, I had to move it out of Wickenburg. That meant finding a secure and affordable hangar in the Phoenix area for the times I expected to do business down there. The plan was for my helicopter to split its time between its Wickenburg hangar and one down in Phoenix or Scottsdale, where my customers were.

After making a few calls and visiting a few airport FBOs, I got what I considered a very good deal from Atlantic Aviation in Deer Valley. For less than I pay for my [admittedly large] hangar at Wickenburg, my helicopter would be stored in a spotlessly clean corporate hangar* only steps away from the terminal building at Deer Valley Airport. If that wasn’t enough to sell me, Atlantic’s line crew would move the helicopter in and out for me at no extra cost. And I’d get a significant discount on fuel purchase. Fuel, of course, was delivered to my aircraft from a truck, so I didn’t have deal with dirty fuel hoses and temperamental fuel systems and the occasional “Out of Fuel” sign.

Sounds good, huh? Well it gets even better.

Nearly everyone at Atlantic knows me by name and greets me with a friendly smile and cheerful “Hello!” When I come in from a flight, the folks at the desk offer me (and my passengers) bottles of icy cold water. The restrooms are sparkling clean and — can you imagine? — always have soap, paper towels, and a clean, fresh smell. If I need to wait for a passenger to arrive, I can do so in a comfortable seating area while watching whatever is on the high definition, flat screen television. If I need to park my good car at the airport for a few nights, they’ll take it inside the airport fence for me and park it in a secure area, where I don’t have to worry about airport lowlifes tampering with it.

On the rare occasion when I do have a complaint — the only time I can think of is when my dust-covered helicopter was taken out in the rain for a few minutes and all that dust turned into big, ugly rain spots — my complaint gets handled quickly, to my satisfaction, without any further ado. With an apology that’s meant. It’s like they realize they have a responsibility and they’re ready to take care of what they need to. (In the instance of my helicopter, they actually washed it for me.)

So to summarize: at Deer Valley I get great service from friendly people who know how to do their job. Getting my helicopter out on the ramp, fueled, and ready for me to preflight and fly is as easy as making a phone call. My monthly rent is reasonable and I get a discount on all fuel purchases.

How much of a discount? Funny you should ask. I’m currently paying about 50¢ less per gallon for full service fuel at Deer Valley than I am for self-serve fuel in Wickenburg. Since I burn about 16 gallons per hour, that saves me $8 every single hour I fly. Since I fly 200 hours a year, that can save me $1,600 over the course of a year. (Ironically, when I ran the FBO at Wickenburg, I was the single biggest buyer of fuel in 2003.)

But it’s not just the money I save that has me buying nearly all of my fuel at Deer Valley these days. It’s the service. That’s something you simply can’t get these days in Wickenburg.

Think the situation at Deer Valley is unusual? Then look at yesterday. I had a charter originating at another Phoenix area airport — one I rarely use. When my passengers arrived, I immediately noticed that one of them had trouble getting around. Since the helicopter was parked quite a distance away from the terminal, I asked the guy at the desk if they could run us all out to the helicopter in their golf cart. No problem. They had the cart ready at the ramp before we even reached it. When I returned from the flight, a quick call on the radio had the cart back in position before my blades had even stopped. But the kicker? When I discovered that the per gallon price of fuel was a penny higher than it was in Wickenburg, I asked for a discount. And even though I only bought a total of 43 gallons (10 before the flight and a top-off after it), they took off 20¢ per gallon.

Other airport FBOs also provide real service. Scottsdale’s Landmark Aviation greets me with a golf cart, offers me and my passengers bottles of water and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. On a recent trip, they even arranged ground transportation for my passengers. I get service at nearly every airport I go to: Falcon Field, Sky Harbor, Glendale, Sedona, Grand Canyon, Page, Monument Valley, Flagstaff, Winslow, Lake Havasu, Bullhead City, Parker — the list goes on and on.

Except Wickenburg.

Wickenburg’s terminal building is kept locked up tight unless they’re expecting a jet. There’s no one there to greet you — let alone smile at you. The bathrooms, which are accessible via keypad-locked door, are usually dirty and seldom have soap. There’s no counter to set down your sunglasses or purse; the moron who redesigned them obviously cared more about how it would look when new than how functional it might be. There’s no comfortable place to wait or to greet passengers. The pop machine is locked up inside the building, so if you’re thirsty, you’re out of luck. The fuel hoses are dirty, the nozzles leak, the static cable has burrs that’ll cut your hand open if you’re not careful. The only fuel truck is for JetA and it’s only available if you call ahead. If no one answers the phone, you’ll be pumping your own JetA, after taxiing your multi-million dollar aircraft up to the self-serve pump. The windsocks aren’t replaced until they’ve rotted away and the pilots complain. And if you’re in a helicopter, be careful of the FOD on the ramp — some of the short 2x4s they use as chocks tend to become airborne in helicopter downwash.

There’s virtually no airport security and airport management — which barely exists — doesn’t seem to care about the airport’s resident low-life, who vandalizes airport and personal property and steals things from the parked vehicles of people he doesn’t like.

I don’t know any local pilot who buys fuel in Wickenburg if he doesn’t have to. For most of them, though, the issue is price. That’s enough to keep them away from the pumps. I don’t think they expect the kind of service a real FBO offers. They just think Wickenburg charges too much for fuel — and they’re right. How can you charge more that most airports in the state when you don’t provide any services to go with it?

What are people paying for?

I know what I’m paying for. And I’m not buying it at Wickenburg Airport.

* To be fair, Atlantic’s hangar in Deer Valley is a shared hangar. The only thing I can store there is my helicopter, its ground handling equipment, and a storage locker for small items such as the dual controls, life vests, and extra oil. It’s not as if I’m getting a cheap private hangar; I’m not. This is, however, what I need on a part-time basis, so it works extremely well for me.

5 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Buy Fuel at Wickenburg Airport

  1. Amen… and great post Maria. It’s really frustrating when I hear others complaining of the ‘big, bad, money grubbing FBOs’ when there are obviously great benefits to the services they provide… and the fuel discounts for the loyalty. With such a vibrant aviation enviornment in AZ, it really seems that Wickenburg is shooting itself in the foot… and of course, the local residents (excluding yourself) could care less to spur better service there. I worked in NY at a municipal FBO and it was frustrating to say the least… high prices on all things, poor facilities, and management that was far from suited for the job (it was under the control of the highway department and the director was more concerned about snow plow trucks than fuel pumps). I also think that there needs to be a paradigm shift when it comes to ‘self-serve’ operations… people assume that the cheap price at a SS avgas pump makes it the same as FS fuel but without the middle man. But in all honesty, where is the assurance of safety that FS provides? Where is the assurance of availability that FS guarantees? Where is the assurance of regular pump maintenance and quality that FS assures as a standard. I remember pumping 93 gallons of avgas into a C-152 at a SS pump when I was a young PP-SEL and the tank was less than 3/4 full… it was pumping air! And there was NO ONE I could address the issue to… only a number to a highway dept secretary that went to voicemail since it was a Saturday! Did I feel comfortable flying on that fuel… nope. Were there any other options… nope. I waited an hour and sumped all low points in the tanks to be sure before I even tried to start up.

    But if it had been a full-service, private FBO business, I would have been worry-free. That’s why I am so glad that pilots like you are willing and able to tout the benefits. In the spirit of full disclosure, I work for one… and it operates the other location at Deer Valley… but I am very happy that you are getting great service and also, even if I didn’t work for one… I’d still use them!

    • Ryan: Ironically, from January 2003 to June 2004, I ran the FBO at Wickenburg. I styled it after other FBOs I knew. I had staff on duty 12 hours a day, 365 days a year. (I remember working on Thanksgiving and Christmas!) I painted and redecorated the terminal building, put in new quality furniture, and had a courtesy car. We sold snacks and always had hot coffee and cold beverages available. We had monthly BBQs and occasional poker runs. A Wings program lecture in my hangar brought 85 airplanes to the airport — far more than have ever been here before. (We were parking them between the hangars and on grass when we ran out of parking spaces!) Despite significant losses each summer month, the business made decent money annually. It was employee headaches and the inability of the town to do anything to make the airport better that convinced me to sell.

      I wanted the airport contract so I could make it better than it was under my predecessor (who passed away). I’m sorry to say that it is now among the worst FBOs I’ve ever visited. Breaks my heart; it’s difficult not to get angry, too.

      As for Cutter at Deer Valley, they also provide good service. In the past, they’ve given me local pilot discounts and even gave me a courtesy car twice in one day. If it weren’t for the hangar deal at Atlantic, I’d use Cutter, too. I always used Cutter at Sky Harbor — until I started using the T-3 helispot for passenger pick-ups and drop-offs. (Much more convenient for me.) They provided free transportation for my passengers from their FBO to the main terminals. And their FBO lounge is VERY comfortable.

  2. Certainly sounds like you made a great move. Congrat’s to Atlantic Aviation for knowing what its customer wants and then following through on those needs.

    • Don: The move is just part-time and seasonal, but I’m really happy with the service down there. The management and staff at Atlantic certainly has the right attitude.

  3. Indeed true, nowadays expecting a service is a sin. even if you are happy to pay a premium for it.

    Its notable of you to appreciate the good things while pointing out the negative. Good things hardly receive the appreciation they deserve.



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