Gas stations: then and now

gas stationsOnce upon a time, gas stations gave away all kinds of cool stuff, most of it targeted at kids. As a child of the 70’s, I clearly recall of our Exxon “NFL Helmets” drinking glass collection, and my miniature Noah’s Ark collectible series (What genius ad team decided that was the perfect gas station promo?). The point is, these giveaways worked. My parents would bribe me not to annoy my older brother on road trips by promising me a new plastic animal for my Ark. My brother didn’t have to punch me in retaliation, my parents didn’t have to pull over; everyone was happy.

I’m not exactly sure when the freebies stopped, but that’s not the only thing that’s changed in American gas station culture over the years. Prior to the opening of the world’s first dedicated gas (or “filling”) station in St. Louis in 1905, hardware stores and mercantiles had gas pumps. The price of gas when the first “drive-in” filling station opened in 1913? Twenty-seven cents a gallon.

As I write this, I’m in Oregon, on the final leg of a 10-day road trip from my home in Seattle to San Francisco and Lake Tahoe. The cost of gas in Truckee, California, where my brother lives is $4.09 a gallon. I paid $3.59 in Mt. Shasta today, and thought myself lucky. Oregon also reminds me of another way gas stations have changed between then and now.

[Photo credit: Flickr user iboy_daniel]gas stationThere were still full-service station attendants when I was a kid: clean, smiling, uniformed pumpers of gas who cleaned the windshield and checked the oil for free. Today, however, Oregon is one of the few states that prohibits the pumping of gas by motorists. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been yelled at in this state for absentmindedly getting out of my car and touching the pump. I actually enjoy pumping gas, but I’m not going to fight about it. I just think southern Oregon might want to look into hiring gas jockeys who look as though they haven’t spent time in a federal prison or crawled out of a meth lab, especially when they don’t even bother to wipe down my windshield. “Here, take my debit card, please.”

I think the trend toward enclosing urban attendants in bullet-proof booths is something that’s fairly recent. That makes me kind of sad. No one should really have to risk their life working the graveyard shift for close to minimum wage, but being a gas station attendant is definitely a high-risk occupation in a lot of places. If nothing else, the temptation to snack on the plethora of chemically-enhanced food and beverages in the workplace creates a hazardous environment.

Although a dying breed, I’ve seen some pretty sweet, old-school gas stations in the rural Southwest, South, and California’s Central Coast that sell regional bbq, Indian fry bread, or biscuits and country ham. I once visited a gas station in Tasmania that sold artisan bread, local cheese, butter, and milk (in bottles, no less), and local wine, jam, and honey. I really wish gas stations/local food markets would catch on the States…it would make getting gas less painful, even if it further depleted my bank account.
gas station
Gas station design has changed drastically over the years. Many rural stations in the fifties and sixties sported kitschy themes, such as dinosaurs or teepees, and were roadside attractions in their own right. Today, we have mega-stations like the Sheetz chain, which is wildly popular in the northeast for made-to-order food, all of it annoyingly spelled with “z’s” (If you need coffeez to go with your wrapz and cheezburgerz, you should check it out). There is something to be said for one-stop mega-station road shopping, however. It’s incredibly convienient when you’re short on time or in the middle of nowhere, and in need a random item.

I love dilapidated old filling stations, but I’m also lazy, so it throws me when I can’t use my debit card at the pump. It’s kind of a moot point, because I possess a bladder the size of a walnut. The cleanliness of gas station restrooms, while still an advertising hook, used to be a point of pride. These days, I feel like I should be wearing a hazmat suit when I use most small chain station toilets. Seriously, if you’re not going to going to clean or restock your bathroom, ever, please don’t post a sign telling me to report to the management if it needs “servicing.”

As for those fun giveaways disguised as advertising? I think that maybe the Happy Meal is what killed it for gas stations. Once fast food outlets started giving kids toys, the ad execs had to come up with a new plan. Which I suppose is why most gas companies target grown-ups now, even if they still use cartoon graphics. Does the sight of anthropomorphized cars dancing atop the pump actually sell gas and credit cards? I’d rather have a set of drinking glasses.

[Photo credits: Magnolia, Flickr user jimbowen0306; DX, Flickr user Chuck “Caveman” Coker;

Calculate your fuel cost – Road trip tip

An essential ingredient for any road trip is fuel. While you know the cost of your accommodations, you may not always know how much gas will cost for the length of your road trip.

There are websites to help you determine that cost, however. For example, AAA‘s Fuel Cost Calculator allows you to calculate the fuel cost of your trip. Using drop-down menus, you select your starting city, destination and vehicle. The calculator determines mileage, gallons of fuel used and total fuel cost. Not all cities and destinations are listed, but you can get a general idea.

At, you can search for the best gas prices in each city or region you’re traveling through. Site visitors report what they paid for fuel at individual gas stations. You’ll learn the lowest and highest prices reported in the past 36 hours. Armed with this information, you can budget your fantastic road trip.

[Photo: Flickr | Borderfilms (Doug)]

Can flying geese offer cheaper airfare?

The way birds migrate has inspired a discovery of how to reduce the amount of jet fuel planes use.

The characteristic V formation that many species take when migrating long distances produces an effect called updraft. The air is pushed down by the bird ahead in formation, making it easier for the bird behind to create enough lift to keep going.

A team at Stanford University led by Professor Ilan Kroo suggests that airplanes do the same. The first jet in the V would essentially clear the way for easier flying for those behind.

This research isn’t new. Back in 1914 the German scientist Carl Wieselsberger first calculated the effects of updraft.

A French team studying pelicans found that flying in formation helped flocks fly 70% further than birds flying alone.

The Stanford team ran a simulation of three passenger jets leaving Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and San Francisco rendezvousing over Utah before continuing on to the East Coast. They found the planes would use 15% less fuel, cutting the airlines’ major expense and carbon output in the process.

So will Ryanair slash rates even more by having their jets fly in formation to cheap holiday destinations, passing the savings to us along with cups full of ice water minus the water? Probably not. All the world’s flight paths would have to be rearranged, costing a huge amount and inevitably leading to some embarrassing near disaster. It is a cool idea, though.

Just a thought–I’d always heard that the V formation was all about dominance in the flock, with the strongest birds being closer to the front. Perhaps the reason the strongest go in front is to make it easier for the weaker ones. Having the leaders prove their strength actually helps the whole flock migrate.

Bio jet-fuel: fact or fiction?

The new trend among all sorts of green energies is in bio-fuels, those combustible fluids made from renewable sources such as switch grass, corn or soybeans. They’re all over the place in the automotive industry, millions of cars burning E38, offering flex fuel options and touting their eco consciousness.

It should only follow that the airline industry jumped on the wagon.

But how valid is the concept of using bio-fuels to power an aircraft? From the combustion standpoint, the science is there, and several airlines have already proved that bio-fuels can be used for propulsion. Virgin Atlantic, Air New Zealand and JAL have all operated international flights with partially loaded eco-fuels, while stateside, Continental has also shown positive results in one of their Boeing 737 aircraft.

Could this all just be part of the marketing eco trend though? ANZ’s 747 on which they performed their bio fuel test was scrapped last year after sitting on the idle tarmac, and ever since the main media hump earlier this year, jet bio fuel tests have been pretty mum. The fact of the matter is, irrespective of the source or processing, eco fuel just isn’t as efficient as anything from fossil sources. And when it comes to the bottom line, we all know that the airlines love to be frugal.

Asked about the current market’s readiness towards bio fuel, out source inside of the production industry was cautious, saying ” … there are some unsubstantiated claims out there and things like stunts with test flights do not have anything to do with the readiness of the fuel on a production basis for air travel.”

Take that for what it’s worth, but it sounds like eco-fuels have a long way to go before entering the mainstream air travel industry.

Plane Answers: Why can’t airlines wait at the gate vs. in a queue on the taxiway?

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Mike asks:

Hello Kent,

There are times when I find myself on a plane that is waiting in the queue to depart and I wonder if this makes sense. After all, having 10 airplanes push from gates only to idle their engines for 20-30 minutes waiting to take off does not seem to be a good idea for an industry where fuel is the largest single cost.

Can you explain who decides when an aircraft pushes back and queues up to take off? Is there a reason that airplanes get in line to depart as opposed to just being assigned a number and waiting at the gate until it’s their turn (other than if the gate is needed for an arriving plane)?

It doesn’t really make sense, Mike. But some airports have adopted a gate hold program that does just what you’re talking about; hold airplanes at the gate until the line begins to clear out. London and Paris both use this technique. However, even after holding at the gate for 15 minutes to an hour, we still often find ourselves waiting in line for departure as we approach the runway. It’s simply a matter of the required spacing for departures combined with the number of flights scheduled to leave at the peak times that causes this.
There is also a concern by ATC that there may be no aircraft ready at the end of the runway for departure if they’re held at the gate at the last minute, which would result in even more inefficiency.

Other airports (especially in the U.S.) will advise flights of a ‘wheels up’ time, allowing the pilots to push back at their discretion as long as they can be ready by the time given by ATC. This works to some extent, but flight crews are paid only after they push back from the gate, so the incentive to begin taxiing early is something that admittedly factors into their decision.

To prevent this, our company has a system in place to start the pay clock for pilots and flight attendants once an ATC delay is given which, in theory, would eliminate this incentive. In practice, many pilots don’t trust the system to log the time or have been denied the extra pay in the past and would rather take the delay off the gate – possibly to an area where ATC will allow them to shut down the engines.

Richard Branson at Virgin made an attempt to think outside the box and looked into a tug system that could tow the airplanes to the end of the runway. Such a system could have saved hundreds of pounds of fuel per flight. Unfortunately, it was discovered that the extra wear and tear on the nose wheel would cost more than the savings generated by the reduced fuel burn.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for next Monday’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.