Fuel Fight: It's About Time
Seven years seems like a long time. By 2017, there will be 30 million more of us in the U.S. and demographic and economic shifts will be profound. That's also the year, at the latest, that leaded aviation gasoline will, by government fiat, disappear. It if doesn't happen sooner. Or if would-be buyers of airplanes just decide that there's just too much uncertainty in the fuels market to fool around with expensive airplanes at all. Or if refiners decide the same thing, scrap their lead units, and make car gas instead. Even if one or two do that, the impact will be significant.
That's about where we are now, actually. Cirrus's recent introduction of the SR22T as a high-performance airplane that will burn 94UL is one sharp edge of that wedge of uncertainty. An e-mail I got last month from a reader asking me if an overhaul of an IO-540 in 2010 is worth the investment is another. He's convinced fuel won't be available for it. Convinced. I'm sure there are others like him and there will be many more.
And this explains why it's so critical to have a rousing, open debate about what the future fuel for piston aircraft will be and to have it now. We shouldn't be relying entirely on industry groups and alphabets to oversee this challenge because they are tangled up in that distant date and enthralled with the minutia of EPA procedures. That's now nothing but a sideshow, since we have agreed that lead has to go. Whether it represents a health hazard or not is now immaterial.
The wakeup call on the market overhang thing came last week when the industry's FAST future fuels group heard from the Clean 100-Octane Coalition, which made it clear that 94UL is the wrong choice. Lycoming has said the same. Continental says the opposite. Does this sound like a time to stifle debate?
Yet some people in the industry think that. Some owners are utterly disengaged and the CEOs of two major manufacturers admitted to me that they haven't been paying close attention to the avgas challenge. Seven years seems so far off. But put a sharp pencil on it and it's not seven years: 2010 is already gone and for market clarity and confidence, buyers will need credible evidence that the solution is coming much sooner. Pick a year. I pick 2013, with fuel ready to make and deliver—or at least visible—by 2015. That's four years off and is probably later than it should be.
The emergence of intense grassroots interest in the fuel debate comes not a moment too soon. Committees who don't have to make and sell aircraft in a world defined by harsh economics understand the challenge, but I don't think they get the timing because they don't have to worry about the next quarter's numbers. Nor do they get how worried owners of high-performance airplanes are about their assets.
I'd like to see more real-world demonstration projects. Continental says the SR22T will run on 94UL. Let's get a demo airplane touring the country to prove it. Let's see some draft POHs so we can judge performance shortfalls. Let's get GAMI's request for an STC fleet test of its G100UL approved, like tomorrow. Let's reach out and encourage Swift with the same offer to fleet test its 100SF, rather than relying on one or two Cessnas in experimental.
Although it may be troubling to see what is effectively the Balkanization of general aviation interests over the fuel issue, it's actually a good thing. At least it's good that we're having the discussion now rather than delaying it much longer to the point that it will become a larger crisis than it already is. This is what happens when no one is minding the store, when no single entity is pushing hard on all practical aspects of the solution. Owners are taking this into their own hands because they don't have a choice.
Unfortunately, as this unfolds and the various interests defend their views and turf, we will all be subjected to disinformation, distortion and obfuscation. The politics surrounding the fuel choice aren't quite on the Capitol Hill league, but they're close. I've been in journalism for more than three decades and I can't recall having been subjected to so much loaded information—it's not that it's wrong, exactly, but some of it simply conveniently ignores countervailing facts that don't support the favored argument. I'm doing my best to sort through this thicket objectively.
My own view is that at this stage, all of the options need to be on the table and should be rigorously examined. And quickly. Let's not ignore something because of the ridiculous notion that our hopes might be dashed by yet another unsuitable choice. Let's get off elevating flyspeck regulatory considerations above the critical task of simply finding a fuel that actually works. Let's stop using the glacially slow ASTM process as a crutch for inaction. Let's not be so afraid to blister the FAA on its lack of engagement and foot dragging on fuel development and approval. Why is everyone so afraid of the Engine and Propeller Directorate?
For those who think we're going to eventually join hands here and sing campfire songs about the magic of aviation, forget it. We have to have the fight first—call it a discussion, if you prefer—before ever getting to the point of coalescing into something visible enough to vaguely qualify as market forces that refiners can respond to. I think owners and operators are just getting to the point of understanding what's at stake well enough to form an opinion that might eventually morph into what will drive the fuel decision: expressed demand for a stated type of fuel.
We're not there yet. Getting there is likely to be a bumpy ride that's not going to be pretty. But the sooner we get serious about this—and thus far we haven't—the sooner we will have a workable solution. But time is a factor here and as an industry, we're burning it.
And by the way, I was unrestrained in my criticism of many working on the fuel problem in last week's blog. In the spirit of free debate, this blog space is open to replies and opinions from anyone in the field. You should have access to this audience. You can be as laceratingly critical of me as you'd like. Just contact me by e-mail and I'll move it forward.