General Aviation Investments in SAF, AAM Pay Off Locally

Avfuel delivers its first load of SAF to Truckee Tahoe Airport District (KTRK) in California in May 2021. Courtesy AvFuel

Roughly 43,000 aircraft move through US airspace every day. Among them, those piloted under the broad segment of general aviation support $247 billion in economic impact each year, and 1.2 million jobs. By 2035, economic gain within a new genre of flight known as advanced air mobility (AAM) is expected to reach $115 billion per year in the US and create 280,000 high-paying jobs there. Also, by 2035—or 2050, depending on the entities involved—companies around the world expect to reach net-zero carbon emissions. Boeing, for one, pledges to ensure all its commercial aircraft will be ready for sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.

At the intersection of these facts, a significant opportunity lies for those individuals, companies, and communities ready to meet the challenges ahead with action. On June 11, a roundtable of local leaders presented by the Alliance for Aviation Across America featured a discussion centered around sustainable aviation, advanced air mobility, and workforce development from key regions across the United States—with a lot of promises and excitement, as well as a few examples of how they are moving forward in these areas.

Hosted by Selena Shilad, executive director of the Alliance for Aviation Across America and moderated by Sam Mintz, transportation reporter for Politico, the panel included Kansas secretary of transportation Julie Lorenz; Barbara Tolbert, mayor of Arlington, Washington; commissioner Bill Holen, Arapahoe County, Colorado, National Association of Counties (NACo); and Michael Alaimo, director for environmental and energy affairs, Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

Conclusions from the panel—who come from a broad range of metropolitan and state governments around the US—began with the availability and readiness of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), and how it will serve on the balance to benefit the communities they represent. Lorenz summarized this: “One of the most important conversations we’re having in the aviation community…is around sustainability.” She noted the role that companies in Kansas have played to advance the use of SAF, mentioning that in 2019, Avfuel positioned SAF at the Salina airport, so that business aviation operators traveling to NBAA’s conference in Las Vegas that year could refuel there and fly into the show on the new fuel. Bombardier and Textron Aviation also began offering SAF with aircraft deliveries in the last two years.

Holen emphasized the need for strong collaboration throughout the industry to solve some of the problems around sustainable fuel and the need to reduce carbon emissions, noting that during one month earlier this year, Centennial Airport (KAPA) alone pumped more than 800,000 gallons of jet fuel. He mentioned the recent Made in America Tax Plan, which includes tax credits for SAF blends and would enable the decarbonization of key portions of the national transportation infrastructure. SAF is available at Telluride (KTEX) and Aspen-Pitkin County (KASE) airports in Colorado, and local alternative fuels company Gevo is based in Englewood, Colorado. Holen stated that the $66 million in sustainable fuel delivered in 2020 was projected to grow to $15.3 billion in 2030.

Electric aircraft also form a critical thrust towards sustainable aviation at work in Colorado and nationally, with another local example, Bye Aerospace. Developed in cooperation with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NERL), Bye’s eFlyer series would address concerns raised by flight training organizations such as the five currently in operation at KAPA—noise is an issue that would be mitigated by electric aircraft, as well as the fact they would reduce fuel costs for those schools.

Alaimo focused on the importance of AAM technologies from a chamber of commerce standpoint, particularly in the state of Michigan. The ability to move between rural and urban areas more efficiently—including VTOL and electrically-powered aircraft—would be one gain from AAM, as well as improved mobility for those with disabilities, and reduced surface congestion when fully realized. He reiterated the fact that by 2035, AAM in the US is expected to reach $115 billion per year and create 280,000 high-paying jobs—in part to meet the demand for travel and tourism—therefore workforce development is both a benefit and a challenge for that sector as well. “In Michigan, we want to be a leader in AAM, building up that ecosystem in our state,” said Alaimo. He called out Avfuel as well, with its headquarters in Ann Arbor, and Williams International in northern Michigan, which recently conducted its first fully operational test flight on SAF using its FJ44 series engines.

Tolbert summarized the importance of general aviation in her region and the state of Washington, particularly during natural disasters and through the pandemic. She recalled how the 2014 Oso mudslide response, rescue, and recovery operations were handled out of Arlington Municipal Airport. In 2020, she said, “We also had dozens of local pilots fly hundreds of pounds of medical supplies and PPE to remote locations, to tribes across the state of Washington, who got the supplies there more quickly than they ever could have through ground transport.” Aviation infrastructure came into play as well: a mass vaccination site was set up on the Arlington airport using a drive-through system to efficiently administer thousands of doses to residents. She also listens to constituents for whom sustainable living is a critical driver—including those from younger age groups. But well-established companies are beginning to see the benefits as well, according to Tolbert: Challenges faced by Boeing make people excited to see new technologies with overlap in those skill sets—to help keep the workforce talent in the area. Large, tiered aerospace suppliers to Boeing can also supply to new companies in sustainable technology development, including those such as MagniX.

Shilad announced the Alliance for Aviation Across America’s latest project: The site highlights the investments and plans for growth across the segments of sustainable fuel, electric aircraft, and advanced air mobility, and will act as a resource for more information on these areas with input from stakeholders. Watch the full Alliance for Aviation Across America webinar here.

Based in Maryland, Julie is an editor, aviation educator, and author. She holds an airline transport pilot certificate with Douglas DC-3 and CE510 (Citation Mustang) type ratings. She's a CFI/CFII since 1993, specializing in advanced aircraft and flight instructor development. Follow Julie on Twitter @julieinthesky.

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