As EAA Air Venture comes to life today, one of the topics on the agenda later in the week is fuels, specifically a replacement for leaded avgas. At last year's show, there was a flurry of activity on this subject, with meetings and briefing galore. This year, not so much. It's not that the topic has cooled so much as it has gone underground. On Wednesday, the FAA and industry groups are supposed to give a briefing on progress made by the Unleaded Avgas Transition rulemaking committee. I'd caution against expecting too much detailed information from this briefing, but I'm willing to be surprised.
Last week, out of the blue, we were copied on a letter sent to the FAA by Friends of Earth declining the agency's initiation to participate in the ARC committee. FOE's ostensible reason for passing was because the ARC committee's deliberations aren't open to the public and press. I don't think that's the real reason. I suspect there are things in the background that we don't know about or that FOE prefers to simply remain in an adversarial role without getting co-opted by the very agencies it may someday choose to sue. Recall that Friends has filed a petition with the Environmental Protection Agency to enjoin it to enforce clean air standards with regard to lead emissions. The next step for FOE might very well be to force the emissions issue into the courts, but it hasn't said as much yet.
Whatever the case, I agree with FOE on one point: This entire fuels review process should be open to the public and the press, just as most things the government does should be open to the public and press. The standard argument for keeping it closed is that private enterprisemainly the oil companiesmight be reticent to express opinions and reveal data for proprietary reasons. And if things are kept behind closed doors, it will better serve to jolly things along. But I just don't buy that argument. If the oil companiesor whomeverare revealing trade secrets to each other, why shouldn't the flying public have an open view of decisions being made that will impact it directly?
In government bureaucracies, secrecy begets more secrecy unless we the regulated push back against continuing it. Although the ARC committee seems to be making some progress, the rumor that it would have substantive announcements to make at AirVenture is apparently just that, a rumor. We can only hope the briefing will bring things more or less up to date, and that's a good thing.
But what I don't think the regulators understand is that the most important thing they can do is to instill confidence in the market. I think most owners believe there will be some kind of solution to replace avgas, but they're less sure about when, how and how much it will cost. This is causing a drag on sales of new and used airplanes and on equipment, although I honestly believe the erosion is just one factor of several stunting sales. Craig Fuller and Randy Babbitt simply saying don't worry, everything will be fine isn't quite enough. The better way would be to have full visibility into the process.