The switch is flipped on Tuesday, rolling out the AAFES fuel-ration card system at Esso and on-post filling stations throughout Germany.

The fuel cards and instructions will be mailed over the summer and fall to most customers at their military post boxes. But starting Tuesday, those who apply for or renew vehicle registrations will receive a fuel card on the spot.

By the end of the year, all Army and Air Force Exchange Service fuel customers will be required to use the cards to fill up off post.

The fuel-ration card is replacing paper coupons as the way to buy gas and diesel on the Germany economy using U.S.-based prices, which are typically half German prices or even less.

Uncertainty over the system is reflected by the 63 "frequently asked questions" posted on the system’s Web site, but at least all 63 questions come with an answer.

David Mattingly, the fuel-ration card program manager for Installation Management Command Europe, hoped all bases are covered.

"We’re doing something that’s never been done before," Mattingly said. "There’s a lot of change for both the customers and the service personnel.

"We’re training the customers. AAFES and Esso are training their personnel."

"With anything as big as this, you’d be surprise if we didn’t have surprises," he added. "At the moment, we don’t have any areas in which we are having surprises."

The fuel-ration card works like a prepaid phone card or debit card. Users deposit money into their fuel-card accounts, and then draw down their balances as they fill their tanks. Payments toward the balance can be made at AAFES cashiers, over the Internet and by phone.

The system also monitors how much fuel a motorist uses per month. Under the Status of Forces Agreement, most personally owned vehicles are limited to 400 liters per months purchased at U.S. prices.

Four hundred liters, or 105.7 gallons, means that a vehicle that averages 20 miles per gallon would be able to travel 2,114 miles per month under current rations. Customers will be able to apply in advance for a larger ration when needed, Mattingly said.

Separate fuel-card provisions are being made for government-owned vehicles and for those who need temporary fuel cards, such as those who rent cars or drive into Germany on leave or temporary duty.

The new system was prompted by the German government, which allows American personnel to buy fuel without paying steep German taxes on it.

The longstanding coupon system has been vulnerable to violations and abuses. For example, users could stockpile coupons and exceed their 400-liter per month ration. Unauthorized users, lured by the prospect of free or cheaper fuel, also targeted the paper coupons, which are like currency at the gas pump.

Under the new system, drivers will be required to present their car registration to Esso cashiers as well as punch in a personal identification number to buy fuel. Customers receive a receipt indicating their prepaid cash balance and remaining monthly ration.

Motorists are still able to use coupons at Aral stations located alongside autobahns. But Aral opted to not come on board with the new computerized system, so the fuel-ration cards will only be usable at Esso stations.

There are approximately 1,200 Esso stations in Germany. They can be found on the AAFES fuel-ration card Web site.

The new system was devised after months of planning and negotiating between Installation Management Command Europe, Esso and the German government, which made 29 stipulations.

After computer systems were built and scenarios were thought through, a group of motorists tested the system for six weeks in October and November using on- and off-post gas stations in the Wiesbaden and Kaiserslautern areas. Program officials then forwarded the test results to the Germany government.

On Jan. 7, the German government approved the system, which continued to be used through the winter and spring by a small group in search of bugs in the system.

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Basics on the fuel card

Fuel-ration cards and instructions on how to activate them will be mailed to vehicle owners at their military post boxes over the summer and fall. (See schedule.)Motorists who register their vehicles or renew registrations will receive their fuel card at that time instead of during the community mailings.Motorists can continue using paper coupons until they receive and activate their fuel card. Once they receive a fuel card, motorists can exchange unused coupons for cash, or for credit on their new fuel card.Town hall meetings

Check local garrisons for time and place:

Tuesday: StuttgartWednesday: GeilenkirchenThursday: SchinnenFriday: AnsbachJune 10: SchweinfurtCommunity rollouts

When vehicle owners can expect to receive fuel cards and instructions in their military post boxes:

Ansbach/Illesheim: July 7-20Baumholder: July 14-26Bamberg: July 14-26Spangdahlem: July 28-Aug. 24Geilenkirchen: Aug. 4-10Vilseck: Aug. 11-24Grafenwöhr: Aug. 25-Sept. 7Schweinfurt: Aug. 25-Sept. 7Hohenfels: Sept. 8-14Stuttgart (Panzer): Sept. 8-21Wiesbaden: Sept. 15-Oct. 12Stuttgart (Patch): Sept. 22-Oct. 5Vogelweh: Oct. 6-Nov. 2Mannheim: Oct. 13-Nov. 2Heidelberg: Nov. 3-30Ramstein: Nov. 3-Dec. 15SOURCE: Installation Management Command Europe

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