New Fuel: Who Picks It?
Now that the FAA is actively seeking proposed unleaded replacements for 100LL, the covers are about to be removed from what can generously be described as the hard way to solve a problem. Last week, the FAA called for the fuels industry to submit proposed unleaded replacements for avgas by July 1, 2014, after which they'll be asked to prepare larger volumes for more evaluation. After that, more testing, more meetings, more paper.
So over the next year, expect to see a slow motion calling of the cards as the oil companies reveal what they've got, assuming the likes of Chevron, BP, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips intend to remain in the avgas game. It's generally assumed that they do because as a refinery product, avgas yields a tidy margin, even though the volumes involved are miniscule and not likely to grow much, if indeed they don't decline. Long term, Jet A-burning engines will displace avgas, albeit at what appears to be a glacial pace. Mogas may or may not have a role in the U.S.
What the oil companies have in the works is largely unknown by the flying public. We've seen some patent activity during the past couple of years from Chevron and ExxonMobil and I wouldn't be surprised to see more filings before the FAA's July 1, 2014 deadline. I don't think it's possible to judge the viability of these fuels merely by patent claims. The FAA says it will accept up to 10 potential candidate fuels and after initial evaluation, it will winnow those down to one or two for further testing to develop detailed certification standards.
And that's the part of the process I don't particularly like. When I asked the FAA what the criteria for selecting those one or two fuels was, the agency replied that this hasn't been determined yet. It deflected follow-up questions for more information. On the one hand, the proposed process—which came out of the Unleaded Avgas Transition ARC—has a not-too-objectionable open-ended quality to it. The candidate fuels are submitted and tested and the cards fall where they might. On the other hand, with no selection criteria announced, what will influence the picking of a winner? Isn't this a little like a game of find the hat? What keeps the selection process from being swayed by internal or industrial influences we don't know about? And what assurance do we have that the winning fuel—not really a fuel per se, but specs—won not because it's the best choice, but because the developer of that fuel did the best politicking?
In a sense, isn't the FAA inserting itself into that which it shouldn't: making market choices and determining the best economic outcome? Why doesn't it make more sense to establish a performance criteria, certify those fuels which meet it and let the market sort out the options? As currently construed, the process is a little like asking Boeing, Airbus and Embraer to submit aircraft designs and having the FAA pick the one it likes so all three have to build the same thing. Strategies like that are producer centric; they favor companies, not customers.
This is further complicated by the long timeline, which extends into 2018, if not beyond. This allows the FAA, the industry and the alphabets plenty of time to further complicate that which is really not that difficult a thing to do: Figure out a performance spec for a workable 100LL replacement, then let the market shoot it out to determine the winner.
The counter argument, I'll concede, is that having too many fuel choices certified by the FAA would cause chaos in the market and would, in fact, makes things worse. While there's truth to that, I'm not convinced that a government agency is the best way to sort it out. In fact, I guess I'm convinced of the opposite.
You may logically wonder why the engine makers, the airframers and even the oil companies, all of whom are governed by the harsh realities of market dynamics where decisions have to be made quickly and products developed at the speed of heat, sign on to such plodding programs. In fact, they actually sought FAA involvement. The answer is: they don't have a choice. When your business is attached to the FAA at the hip, this is your world.
I'm glad I'm just livin' in it.