Pain at the Pump

Dissecting the just-released final report submitted by the FAA's Unleaded Avgas Transition Aviation Rulemaking Committee (UAT ARC), here's what you need to know about the future of 100LL avgas:

• There’s no real financial motive for any of the major fuel suppliers to create an alternative to 100LL aviation gasoline because the market is so small.

• No approved alternatives to 100LL currently exist, and coming up with one that can replace leaded avgas without requiring changes to aircraft systems might be impractical.

• The EPA doesn’t really care about these last two points, and is insisting that leaded aviation fuel be banished from production.

• The FAA’s experts think it will take 11 years, or maybe longer, to make the transition to an alternative fuel. As a result, the agency is launching a government-industry initiative called PAFI (Piston Aviation Fuel Initiative) to figure it all out.

• Nobody knows what an alternative fuel will cost at the pump – even more worrying, there is a risk that 100LL could become an extremely scarce fuel before the transition to an alternative is completed.

Reading between the lines of the UAT ARC’s report, I see few reasons why an acceptable alternative to 100LL avgas can’t be identified and approved. The key is timing. Some small companies have already come up with innovative solutions, with the major barrier preventing one or more of these fuels from entering mainstream production being the FAA’s own unwillingness to test and certify them. Of course, with the creation of the PAFI, that process can begin.

But let’s not kid ourselves: This all means throwing a ton of money at the problem. At least there is now an agreement in place about who (the government and industry) will pitch in what amount ($60 million from the FAA and $13 million from private industry). The potential problem is that Congress must still approve the FAA’s portion of the funding, and there’s no guarantee it will.

Some good news is that there appears to be a possibility that the transition from leaded to unleaded fuel might involve nothing more than a paperwork exercise for the majority of piston airplanes. I hesitate to speculate any further because it’s too early to know for sure if this will be the case, but the report’s authors brought it up – so we’ll see. The developers of alternative fuels will be tasked with determining which aircraft are “out of scope” and therefore may need hardware modifications to comply.

The question most pilots are asking, of course, is what will we pay to fill our tanks with approved unleaded aviation gasoline? The UAT ARC report authors admitted they don’t have an answer. Instead, they pose another question, which should be even more worrying to the GA community: There is currently only one supplier of the tetraethyl lead (TEL) used in avgas. What if that supplier, a company called Innospec, sees the handwriting on the wall and suddenly decides to exit the market? The report’s authors predict it would lead to hoarding of TEL and skyrocketing prices for 100LL.

In other words, in trying to fix one problem, the EPA and FAA may unwittingly create a new one. Let’s hope not. But 11 years is a long time. My guess is the transition to unleaded fuel will happen eventually, but maybe not without the sort of price volatility that will cause us all some real pain at the pump.

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