Fuel Survey: Give Us Real Numbers
In today's news feed, we're reporting a brief summary of the responses to our avgas replacement survey. More than 3000 people participated and at least 2000 of them provided written comments, most of which I have read. I consider the effort required a valuable education in what owners think about this critical issue. And they are thinking about it. I thought the most penetrating comment I read came from owner Tim Kramer, who said this:
We need estimates as to the cost of hardware modifications and forecast pricing for alternative blends. The pricing projections need to come from credible fuel producers, not from proponents of any particular formulation. Consumers want a cheap fuel that does not increase engine maintenance costs, does not reduce range or power, and is readily available within existing infrastructure. We won't know how to 'vote' until we see some data on modification costs and fuel pricing.
That, in a nutshell, frames the difficult conundrum that owners find themselves in. Through a maddening confluence of government slow-leak regulation and a weak market, every conceivable solution to replacing leaded fuels has significant and unattractive downsides. There is no obvious pain-free solution. And as Kramer points out, the people who are most at risk here—the actual buyers of fuel—don't have enough reliable information with good price signaling to form the definite opinions that will gel into unified demand. Our survey was an attempt to sound these dark depths and return with useful information. The results are sketchy at best, but still better than anything anyone else has done.
One thing seems obvious to me: Every possible path will cause erosion in flight activity and participation. Do nothing, lose owners due to doubt. Announce a pricier 100-octane solution, lose owners on cost issues. Tilt toward 94UL, lose owners who won't modify their aircraft. Push against mogas to sustain high-octane demand, lose owners at the low end. So, as I've said before, it may be a question not of picking the best solution, but the least bad one.
The alphabet groups might rather see less independent reporting on this topic than more, because they wish to control the narrative and one way of controlling that is to attempt to tamp down owner concern with the don't-worry-we've-got-this-covered approach. I'll concede some merit to this sentiment, but many owners simply won't buy it. And they are in the "overhang" group; the owners who are delaying purchases and upgrades because of doubts about fuel. These are owners who have hundreds of thousands tied up in assets that are useless without 100-octane fuel.
I'm inclined neither to inflame these owners nor blow puffs of sunshine their way as a narcotic against maintaining pressure to put a solution in sight as soon as possible. Every week, we are asked by a reader or two to keep the fuel issue front and center and I think it's important to do that as accurately and fairly as possible and to resist signing on to the industry propaganda apparatus.
Where to from here? This week, the FAA convenes a committee to yet again examine the replacement fuel issue, re-state the problem and, one hopes, actually move forward to a solution. I have yet to see a proposal better than that from Lycoming's Michael Kraft: Decide on a path within two years, allow eight to 10 years to implement it. The "decide" part is critical, because it injects some certainty into the market and at least reduces market erosion while the ultimate solution is put into place. Owners will begin to get the clarified price signals Tim Kramer is asking for and they can plan accordingly.
It's unfortunate that federal agencies like EPA play, perhaps unintentionally, a form of rope-a-dope. If they did not, perhaps the industry could realistically approach them with a proposal that splits the difference between various conflicting interests. One idea that has probably occurred to some is to propose the soon-to-be-approved 100VLL fuel as a standard, encourage more unleaded mogas and accept that airborne lead emissions will decline gracefully at a somewhat lower rate than emerging air quality standards might require. Long-term, the heavy-fuel engine demand curve will take over and further erode gasoline lead emissions. The argument for this is economic: jobs and infrastructure protection, a tradeoff against what surely must be the world's least critical environmental threat. But for this to work, EPA would have act quickly and decisively, which is something it simply does not do, preferring instead waffling and confusing statements that serve only to sow further doubt. Getting anything approaching clarity from this agency is impossible.
I'm not ignoring the single-point-lead-supply argument, by the way. I just think it's wrong. I recently registered with the Alibaba Trading Agency inquiring about tetraethyl lead opportunities in China. Now I get an e-mail every other day asking where I'd like it delivered and how much I want. I think if you want lead, you can get lead. There's not just one source.
Moving back into the realm of the doable, my guess is that an unleaded 100-octane solution of some kind is what the market wants and what is most likely to happen, eventually. The survey revealed very little support for 94UL, nor the modifications necessary to burn it. I can't imagine manipulating the wording in the questions to move that response much. Perhaps some more definitive comparative price data would help. If 94UL proponents want to push this fuel, they've got a sales job to do.
While I think mogas should be part of the mix—that's what owners say they want—this is going to be difficult. And the fact that half of the owners who want mogas recognize that it's probably a non-starter due to ethanol pressure is telling. Still, although it's the market equivalent of the Charge of the Light Brigade, it's worth a try.
What's not worth trying is accepting lack of action as owners continue to defect for lack of confidence in future fuel.