State of GA? Fuel, Workforce, and Supply Chain Remain Hot Topics

Unless you’re a C-SPAN junkie, like my mom, you probably haven’t taken the time to watch one of the more functional elements of the U.S. government in action—a Congressional subcommittee…

Fuel is a hot topic for GA pilots, whether it’s the price of it, or the drive to get the lead out of it. [File photo: Adobe Stock]

Unless you’re a C-SPAN junkie, like my mom, you probably haven’t taken the time to watch one of the more functional elements of the U.S. government in action—a Congressional subcommittee hearing.

And no, we are not talking about the hearings making the big news these days.

There are more quotidian opportunities that give legislators the chance to gather on-the-record information regarding a particular topic—and they typically call expert witnesses to testify, such as the heads of our various aviation associations.

The U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Aviation has jurisdiction over the FAA. In advance of next year’s FAA Reauthorization process, the subcommittee convened a hearing on the State of General Aviation, bringing together a roster of GA leaders representing a range of interests across several associations to testify on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., with some representatives participating via livestream:

  • Mark Baker, president and CEO of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA)
  • Chris Rozansky, executive director, Naples Airport Authority on behalf of the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE)
  • James “Jim” Viola, president and CEO of the Helicopter Association International (HAI)
  • Pete Bunce, president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA)
  • Timothy Obitts, president and CEO of the National Air Transportation Association (NATA)
  • Greg Pecoraro, president and CEO of the National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO)
  • Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA)

So, What Are They Saying?

Each of those leaders called to Washington to say their piece—and speak for their respective constituents—prepared testimony in advance, which you can read here.

“Most people don’t know how important GA is to the economy and to the people of the United States,”

Rick Larsen (D-WA), aviation subcommittee chairman

But if you’d like a synopsis, what they had to say boils down into a handful of primary topics:

  • Workforce—at manufacturers as well as the FAA
  • Supply chain
  • Airports and other infrastructure
  • Fuel
  • Advanced air mobility (AAM) and other technology

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR, House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman), set the stage on the importance of general aviation to the U.S. “In 2019, more than 65 percent of flights were conducted for business and public services and more than 90 percent of the approximately 220,000 civil aircraft registered were for general aviation.”

“Most people don’t know how important GA is to the economy and to the people of the United States,” said Rick Larsen (D-WA), aviation subcommittee chairman.

Rick Larsen

Larsen called out the current risks to the GA industry—which supported an estimated $247 billion in economic output and 1.2 million jobs in the U.S. in 2018—including the workforce reductions and supply chain issues driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. These join the environmental impact and safety concerns surrounding the impending sunset of unleaded avgas and the introduction of sustainable aviation fuel, as well as integrating new technologies, such as electric aircraft and AAM into the National Airspace System (NAS).

“Over the weekend, I attended the Tarkio Air Show with Ranking Member Sam Graves and Ranking Member Garret Graves, which provided some helpful insights into the priorities of GA operators and companies,” said Larsen.

“One issue I heard from GA stakeholders at the Tarkio Air Show is the mounting workforce issues at the FAA, which are creating backlogs in the rulemaking and regulatory process.”

As testimony from each voice was heard, these pain points surfaced again and again.

Breakdowns in the supply chain have driven the need for substitutions—from computer chips to literally nuts and bolts.

Workforce Woes

No doubt about it, the pandemic shocked the world, and GA took its punches within the global aerospace industry. As Pete Bunce, of GAMA, reported in his remarks, “I have never seen a time when the manufacturers and maintenance providers have been under such tough times,” noting that workforce was down 20 percent for most manufacturers and maintenance organizations.

The problem has become particularly intense at the FAA, creating a bottleneck in both new approvals and the adjustments required to deliver currently type-certificated aircraft, avionics, and other equipment. 

Breakdowns in the supply chain have driven the need for substitutions—from computer chips to literally nuts and bolts—and the FAA’s response time has stretched to unreasonable levels. Reduced staffing at the agency can take part of the blame, but friction induced by remote work has also intensified the bureaucracy.

“In my 17 and a half years [in this position], I have never seen the bureaucracy grind the industry to a halt,” said Bunce. He called out as an example one manufacturer that needed to swap out “one LED bulb for another” because it couldn’t source the original specified within its certification documentation. According to Bunce, it took eight months for the FAA to process that change.

Remote work has reduced natural collaboration as well within the FAA, according to Bunce, and driven an increase in the amount of email and other CYA practices to ensure buy-in throughout approval processes. Compounding the problem? Brain-drain at the agency, with more than 40 percent of the FAA’s workforce having less than three years on the job.

As reported by Ed Bolen, of NBAA, “A lot of people are in their new positions at the FAA,” and they need time to “establish command of the issues and processes.”

Supply Chain Breaks

In the meantime, OEMs are dedicated engineering resources to chasing these changes. Why? Because of delays in acquiring necessary components—or the outright inability to source from a previous supplier.

While the panel praised Congress for its passing of the Aviation Manufacturing Jobs Protection Program—included in the American Rescue Plan in 2020—which protected more than 30,000 good aviation manufacturing jobs nationwide, Larsen pointed out that “Congress can and must do more to better prepare the GA sector for future disruptions.” It’s a national security issue for the U.S. to source more of its supply chain from within its borders, according to several on the panel.

Bunce used the example of one GA equipment manufacturer in North Dakota attempting to source a semiconductor chip—one that normally cost $7.50 has exploded in price to $780. For a piece of equipment that retails for around $2,000, there’s no way the manufacturer can pass the price increase on to the customer.

Inflation is also taking its toll in other ways, as evidenced in one metric tracked by GAMA, the book-to-bill ratio between aircraft orders and deliveries. “[It’s] the lead and lag in taking orders and fulfilling orders,” said Bunce, “the book to bill ratio—2.5 years—as you accept supplies, [and] increased labor costs,” but need to honor the contractual price to the customer.

Aviation leaders say airports continue to need infrastructure updates, especially with the foreseen integration of advanced air mobility and electric aircraft. [File photo: Adobe Stock]

Airports and Infrastructure

Another area where GA has seen support from ongoing government investment—yet could always use more—lies in the funding for airports and other infrastructure improvement. “We included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill over $20 billion for infrastructure grants at airports across the country, with $2.5 billion of those funds going to non-primary commercial service and general aviation airports,” said DeFazio in his opening remarks.

As Chris Rozansky, representing AAAE, pointed out, “Many GA airports have exceeded 2019 [operations] levels,” with increases in flight training, charter flights, and the increase in remote work allowing people to choose where they live. He called for a broader range to airport and infrastructure funding to allow for flexibility in using the monies assigned by the AIP.

While repairing runways and taxiways is critical, another type of infrastructure squeeze does its own kind of harm—the inability for many aircraft and business owners to find hangars and space for development. “[There’s a] shortage of GA aircraft hangars across the country; waitlists stretching for years,” said Mark Baker, of AOPA. 

This not only drives up costs for pilots, but also hurts the small businesses that are the lifeblood of GA airports. As Tim Obitts, of NATA, noted, “the vast majority of [NATA] members are small businesses,” and they have “weathered the storm” of COVID, thanks to their “can-do attitudes.” But there’s only so much they can do to press forward without the facilities to do so.

Fuel Questions

Many of those small businesses referenced by Obitts are FBOs, which are responsible for delivering the fuel that keeps the GA fleet aloft, whether it’s avgas or jet-A.

But the composition of those fuels will change—and is already changing—to meet the industry-wide goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, as well as the need to get lead out of avgas once and for all. While sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is already in the field in both blends and testing at 100 percent to replace petroleum-based jet-A, unleaded avgas lags behind because the solution is not a purely drop-in replacement.

Both DeFazio and Larsen praised the efforts of the EAGLE (Eliminate Aviation Gasoline Lead Emissions) initiative—and a couple of House representatives followed up with pointed questions about how the industry/FAA partnership was going. The plan is to have a workable version or versions of unleaded high-octane fuel deliverable to the GA fleet by 2030 and sunset 100LL.

Baker said, “The entire GA industry is working together to remove lead from avgas,” by no later than 2030—but he called out the move by Santa Clara County to stop selling 100LL at both San Jose’s Reid-Hillview (KRHV) and San Martin (E16) airports as a “dangerous precedent” that could have a “domino effect” on safety if aircraft are misfueled with unleaded avgas or run dry in search of an alternate source.

Bunce added, “We were able to get an organization structure in place for cooperation, pillar leads, and industry, [setting the stage for the] ability to go toward a certification of a fuel. FAA has never certified an actual fuel.” The group’s last meeting made progress towards testing, to address the fleet.

As Baker noted, “We [as the GA industry] support the transition—it’s the right thing to do. But we need to allow the stakeholders in the process time to test, validate, and adopt the right fuel and processes for implementing unleaded avgas into the marketplace and infrastructure.”

The Future and AAM

Much of the infrastructure and regulatory support the GA industry requests from Congress will help propel new technology, including that driven by the AAM movement. Electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, alternative fuels such as hydrogen, and increasing utilization of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) require new investment—and new guidance for certification of aircraft and pilots.

Greg Pecoraro, of NASAO, pointed to specific infrastructure needs voiced by that association’s constituents at the state level: “National electric grid access” and “on-airport clean power generation” will be key to servicing electric aircraft at the nation’s airports and future vertiports for eVTOLs.

Jim Viola, of HAI, offered his association’s expert perspective on the development of VTOL and AAM as an early supporter: “Our members have been operating in vertical mode for many years,” he noted. “The FAA must have an effective yet flexible certification system,” however, recognizing differences—and improvement in the certification process is needed.

In addressing all of the exciting technology blossoming throughout the industry, the workforce of the future is critical as well: AOPA’s Baker promoted the association’s four-year high school STEM curriculum: “[We have] more than 12,000 high school students in 44 states, with 57 high schools in Oklahoma—the largest in the country.”

Still Safety First

Overall, as we move through what Bunce in recent months has termed this generation’s “Jet Age,” as an industry, we need to continue keeping safety top of mind. As Bolen summarized, “Our ability to continually improve the safety of the system [is paramount] . Continue to focus on ASAIS [Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing] program, SMS [safety management system] tools, but do so in a way that is consistent with operations. They have to be scalable, and they have to be usable.”

Whether it’s the safe introduction of unleaded fuel into the GA fleet, the safe integration of VTOLs and UAS into our airspace, or the safe onboarding of an electric fleet into the training market—all of these must be achieved without compromising the level of safety we have worked so hard to achieve over the past 20 years. And it will take support from the government—and change at the FAA—to do it.

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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