'Caveat emptor' -- buyer beware, as they say. Watch out when someone asks you to sign something that says you'll pay whatever it takes for a service. In this case, the problem occurred when a pilot tried to get de-iced so he could fly home.
Sometimes you learn hard lessons in life. Sometimes these lessons are cheap, but sometimes they are very expensive. During the first week of February, I learned one of the expensive lessons.
I have perhaps one of the most highly modified and upgraded Cessna T206H aircraft in existence. It has just about everything. However, when I fly away from my home base in the winter, it does not have its own carry-your-own hangar. Instead, I am at the mercy of the FBO at my destination airport. This sad tale describes my experiences with one FBO at Chicago's Midway Airport, Atlantic Aviation.
Landing In The Ice
As usual, I was notified at the last minute that I had to attend a meeting in downtown Chicago, and I needed to fly in, go to the meeting, and fly out as quickly as possible to make meetings in other cities. The weather was bad, and there was lots of snow and ice everywhere. However, I found that I could fly to Chicago from my home base near Washington, D.C., in a break between two winter storms. Knowing that I would need a hangar in Chicago, I called in advanced to reserve a hangar, but I was told, "Hangars are provided on a first-come, first-served basis." I would just have to try my luck.
I arrived late because my avionics shop had missed a wire during some of my never-ending avionics upgrades, and I had to wait for the repair. Thus, when I arrived at Midway, the snow had just started, and the ice was on the way. When the linemen helped me unload the plane, I asked if a hangar was available, and they laughed. (I took that as a "No.") When I checked in at the front desk, it was confirmed that there was no hangar space available.
The next morning, before my meeting, I called and provided my estimated time of departure. I asked that my aircraft be "prepared for departure, with a top off and a hangar or de-ice." I was told, "It will be ready."
Thawing My Icicle Aircraft
After my meeting, when I arrived at the airport, my airplane was an icicle. It was sitting outside, covered in snow and over an inch of ice. I asked why the aircraft had not been fueled or put in a hangar or de-iced, and I received an apology. However, I was told that de-ice required that I sign, "An agreement to pay whatever it costs." Apparently, because they cannot predict the exact cost of a de-ice, some customers had refused to pay: thus, the requirement for the sign "the agreement to pay whatever."
After I signed, the aircraft was fueled immediately, but none of the linemen wanted to de-ice it. I asked one lineman about the delay, and he explained that the airplane needed to go in the hangar for a few hours to thaw, "Because de-ice would cost too much." He estimated that I would need about 50 gallons of de-ice and, "... at $12 a gallon, that's $600." I thanked him for his kind concern for my wallet and promptly asked the front desk about a hangar.
However, the story at the front desk was, "We don't have any hangar space." I asked about the cost, and the hangar was $85. When I explained that $85 was cheaper than $600, I received an apology, but nothing more. I then pointed to a security monitor, which showed a large empty hangar. I said, "Why can't I get a thaw in that empty hangar?" She said, "That hangar is for the jets." I said, "But, I only need it for 3 hours to thaw." She said, "There are two jets arriving at 9 p.m." I looked at my watch, and it was 4:30 p.m. She saw me look at my watch and smiled sheepishly.
At this point, I made that costly "life lesson" mistake. I said: "Well, I guess I have no choice. Go ahead and do the de-ice." The lineman looked at me with sad eyes and whispered: "I'm really sorry. We'll try to keep it to 20 gallons, if possible." I thanked him for his concern and away he went to the de-ice truck. I then had the horror of watching them de-ice my aircraft for 10, then 20, then 30, and finally 40 minutes. Afterwards, he slowly walked back with his head down and then dropped the bomb: He used 151 gallons! Unable to speak from shock of an $1812 de-ice, I climbed in my costly de-iced plane and flew home in a rage.
Paying For Thawing My Icicle Aircraft
As soon as I landed, however, I had a message on my cell phone from the FBO. At first, I thought they were going to waive the insane de-ice fee, but no. The lady from the front desk had called to inform me that the de-ice was $15 a gallon, not $12, and that the total for the de-ice was $2265 (plus tax). However, "Because I had asked for a hangar," she said that she would talk the manager about a discount. The next day, she called and reduced the price to $8.50 a gallon, and I was charged $1395.81 (with tax).
Tough Cookies For The Little Guy
After I secured a loan to cover the de-ice charges, I shared my sad little tale with several of my flying friends. Every one said it was the most outrageous story of price gouging they had ever heard (in my opinion, even worse than Signature's new $37.50 security fee). Personally, I had never paid more than $700 to de-ice my Cessna 206. Also, I checked around with pilot friends, and no one had ever heard of such an expensive de-ice. Feeling somewhat abused, I called Atlantic and asked for the General Manger.
I repeated my tale and asked if he had any comments on the charges. Surprisingly, he was quite unapologetic. To the contrary, he explained that Midway Airport was for the "big guys" and that my little Cessna was clearly a "little guy." Specifically, he stated that the de-ice equipment at Midway was configured for "jets" and not for "Cessnas," and that there is nothing that they could have done to reduce the costs. I explained to the General Manager that I had received de-ice services at a number of Class B and Class C airports, and that I had never been charged over $700 (but Atlantic's de-ice had cost almost $2400 before the discount). He had no response. I also explained that I had specifically asked for a hangar (which would cost only $85), and that a hangar was available, but I was not given access to the hanger for a quick thaw. Again, he had no response. After a short pause, however, he reiterated that I should have expected such high costs at a "big airport like Midway."
Lessons From The Logbook
So, what's the $1400 lesson? Simple: I need to buy that TBM700. But, short of that highly desirable option (which probably wouldn't even satisfy Atlantic's General Manager because a TBM700 is still probably "too small"), I should have insisted on a hangar.
Atlantic had a hangar, and I should have demanded it. Pitching a little fit and making a scene could have saved me over $1300. Of course, temper tantrums don't always work. At Wilson Air in Memphis, I was once charged $150 for 2 hours in a hangar (while a hail storm passed the field). $150 was the overnight charge, and Wilson had refused to place me in the hanger overnight but did pop me into the hangar during the storm. I ranted and raved that I should not have to pay $150 for 2 hours, when I was denied the hangar for the night. Eventually, they relented and cut the cost to $75. It made me mad, them mad, and generally ruined my afternoon. I saved money, but in retrospect, it was just not worth it to me to spoil a nice day over $75.
Of course, $1400 is a heck of a lot more money than $75, but I was actually willing to let it pass (something my wife cannot believe). Atlantic acted reasonably to cut the bill from $2265 to about $1400 (although a hangar would have only cost $85), and I did need to leave (and not wait indefinitely for an "available" hangar). But, I'm not sure that many other "little guys" out there -- who fly airplanes somewhat smaller than those frequently piloted by John Travolta -- would agree.
So, here are some of my little life lessons for you. First, insist on that hangar (and avoid that costly de-ice, if possible); and second, be careful signing those "agreements to pay whatever." If neither of these options is available, at least at Midway Airport, you may want to try a different FBO.