FAA Avgas Replacement Committee

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While I was taking notes at the FAA's avgas replacement committee briefing at AOPA Summit on Thursday, I thought of something famed Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee once said. Journalists shouldn't waste much effort on writing stories about governmental processes—how this bill went from one committee to the next or how some obscure federal agency shuffles its paper. Such stories waste ink and paper (pixels, now) and do nothing but provide helpful shilling for agencies and politicians to act quietly behind closed doors, away from the eyes of the public. No understanding of the larger meaning is conveyed.

Yet scribbling about process was exactly what I was doing last week, for the briefing we got from the Unleaded Avgas Transition rulemaking group (UAT-ARC) provided very little substance to chew on, but a couple of dense government-speak flow charts and a briefing on how the Clean Air Act works. (I'll concede that this part of the briefing was useful because it showed how EPA is constrained from spinning out of control and banning leaded avgas.) The briefing we heard Thursday was the one that was supposed to be delivered at AirVenture in July but got tanked because the Congressional debt fiasco temporarily shut down the FAA.

Following the briefing, the committee panel entertained questions from the audience, but carefully steered these toward process issues and away from substance. To a degree, this is understandable because the UAT-ARC is midstream and whatever recommendations it might be considering are subject to revision. I get that. But the missing piece here could be found in the perceived mood of the audience. I asked my friend Paul Millner, who was sitting next to me, for his one-word assessment of the audience's demeanor: Anxious. Mine would have been impatient, with a splash of skepticism.

And what's missing is the same thing missing in the larger economy: confidence—in the FAA, the industry players and, indeed, the process itself. That one audience member asked the perennial question concerning the future value of an expensive overhaul with avgas in doubt shows that the lack of a transparent effort to find an unleaded replacement continues to erode buyer confidence. If you were trying to design a process to aggravate this worry and doubt, a committee meeting behind closed doors which is legally constrained from reporting progress would be it. I don't think the FAA has a clue about this, although many on the UAT ARC committee certainly do.

I am told by people I respect and trust that this secrecy is necessary because if the public at large got wind of certain ideas or trends the committee was pursuing, niche interests might derail progress. But what niche interests? It certainly couldn't be the oil companies, since they are well represented on the committee. OEMs? They have seats at the table, too. And besides, when in the messy thing we call democracy did it become accepted that the intersection of government regulation and commerce needs to be shaded from public scrutiny?

As a journalist, it is my job to push back against this misguided idea. My job is to try to pull the curtain back, not hand others another roll of Velcro to secure it. When I am asked by owners—and I frequently am—what to do about investments in overhauls and upgrades, I respond that avgas replacement will get sorted out. Go ahead with the planned upgrade. I can't give any specifics, because I don't know any specifics. I think the UAT-ARC is making progress and is unlikely to run off the rails. But I conclude this is based on a degree of blind faith buttressed by information from sources outside the committee.

I think the committee is asking the GA community for a similar degree of blind faith, but in my view, against the larger backdrop of widespread government and Congressional ineptitude and a dysfunctional political climate, it thus far remains faith unearned.

Comments (18)

Well written and well said.

Posted by: JOHN EWALD | September 26, 2011 9:04 AM    Report this comment

Paul, your final paragraph about trust/faith certainly is well founded, but there has to be a middle ground.

Anyone who has ever served on any committee charged with accomplishing a non-trivial task is painfully aware of Samuel Johnson's observation on the impossibility of effective progress "if all possible objections must first be overcome."

This leads to the quite natural desire of the group to be left alone to use their best judgment in accomplishing whatever the task may be without outside interruption.

All this is inherent in the representative form of democracy and the only thing we can do is try not to drift too far from the aforementioned middle ground, a non-trivial task to be sure.

Posted by: John Wilson | September 26, 2011 11:44 AM    Report this comment

All this leads one to ask, why is the ARC afraid of public scrutiny? Do they really presume to be the only individuals capable of solving this dilemma? If so, they are blind to the reality of our industry. Just in the past few weeks, Lycoming and Continental have both announced engines capable of running on autogas or 94UL. Essentially all new LSA engines are designed to run on the same fuels. If the recent news of 100VLL is typical of what we can expect from the ARC in the future, it's no wonder that expectations are low. The good news is, that manufacturers, airports and pilots are not all sitting around waiting to see smoke rising from an ARC committee meeting. The world is moving towards a multi-fuel autogas/94UL/avgas/Jet-A solution depending on local supply and demand. FADEC and ADI systems should allow a retrofit of any engine needing an 100 octane fuel, at a cost of course. There is no free lunch, certainly not in aviation.

Posted by: Kent Misegades | September 26, 2011 12:10 PM    Report this comment

Just received a note from someone who sat in on the ARC forum at the AOPA summit: "I did go to AOPA and sat in the ARC report update. It was so odd....they wouldn't answer any questions outside the ARC scope and it was kind of like the Stepford Wives."

Posted by: Kent Misegades | September 26, 2011 12:30 PM    Report this comment

“I am told by people I respect and trust that this secrecy is necessary because if the public at large got wind of certain ideas or trends the committee was pursuing, niche interests might derail progress.”

As Paul suspects, this claimed need for secrecy is misguided. All federal agencies would make this argument every time they wanted to work out something behind closed doors with various interests -- if they could. But in the wake of Watergate, Congress passed the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) to force the doors of government open – if only just a crack. FACA requires federal agencies to publicly notice meetings of any advisory committees they establish and to open meetings of those committees to the public. So why aren’t the meetings of the UAT ARC open to public? Because the FAA took advantage of a way around FACA that is not available to other federal agencies. In establishing a Federal Aviation Management Advisory Council (FAA Reauthorization Act of 1996), Congress exempted from FACA the Council and “such aviation rulemaking committees as the Administrator shall designate.” The FAA charter for the UAT ARC designates it as one of those FACA-exempted rulemaking committees. As such, the FAA may have legally evaded FACA, but by not making the meetings of the UAT ARC open to the public it certainly abused the idea behind FACA – that the public’s business shouldn’t be shaded from its scrutiny.

Posted by: Robert Davison | September 26, 2011 12:50 PM    Report this comment

CONFIDENCE is the problem, just as it is with the national economy! But there are other major points to be made.

1. CONSUMER COST is the single area of concern for small piston plane pilots and owners. Most of us trust the industry to protect us regarding safety, fuel availability, and any transition. But the entire process seems to be relegating COST to a back seat. The industry will do its best but the COST will be what it will be. This is wrong!

2. “ENDANGERMENT” - since there has been no “finding of endangerment” by the EPA, why do we even have an FAA committee chasing after a solution before we even know if we have a problem that needs solving?

3. 100VLL - many pilots are pooh-poohing this as a waste of time and no progress at all. In fact, it could be our salvation! Why? Because it is definitive evidence that the industry is taking lead seriously and has made a very significant stride to reduce lead in avgas! Why upturn a half century of SOP in one fell swoop by completely deleting all lead? No, it is far more “normal” to make incremental improvement - and that’s exactly what 100VLL represents. The entire industry should be proudly holding this up as ample evidence of major progress - and the EPA and Greenies should get off our backs! Note that the EPA has never even asked for removal of all lead.

Bottom line - as consumers, we are not CONFIDENT that our COST will be contained by the FAA-UAT-ARC, or by any other industry body.

Posted by: JIM HERD | September 26, 2011 1:00 PM    Report this comment

I agree with James except on item (2) I don't think the "finding of endangerment" matters - for other reasons, leaded fuel needs to go (engine longevity and the current mess of trying to handle leaded fuel, lead tainted engine oil, etc.

I do believe that cost really should be the driver here - if unleaded 100 octane adds $1 - $2 a gallon to the price of 100LL, I'm not sure the industry will survive.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | September 26, 2011 5:39 PM    Report this comment

Just heard that Mountain Empire Airport (KMKJ) in western VA recently added 93 AKI ethanol-free, lead-free autogas. They are selling it for $3.95/gallon. If a small airport home to ~20 airplanes can sell it, anyone can.

Posted by: Kent Misegades | September 26, 2011 6:06 PM    Report this comment

It's easy. The FAA can do nothing (and GA will die on the vine) or they can take control of the situation and and promote a a fuel that has a future.

The future of GA is not in high price fuel or in complex(even pricier) fuel. Economics drives everything. The good news is that we already have solutions. All we lack is leadership...

Posted by: Mark Fraser | September 27, 2011 10:17 AM    Report this comment

Josh - if 100LL's days are numbered for rational commercial reasons then so be it. Such is the nature of our glorious Capitalist system. But I think engine longevity being damaged by lead is largely a myth with proper SOPs, although I will bow to any rational and expert case to the contrary. Leaded fuel is a mess in the distribution chain, but it has worked for many decades. Lead in engine oil is a non-issue unless you over-prime. But the common denominator with all of this is MONEY. I believe we have an inelastic market and it will break with new cost burdens, or even the fear thereof!

Posted by: JIM HERD | September 27, 2011 11:39 AM    Report this comment

Mark - so what must be done about the vacuum in leadership on this issue?

We all have opinions but most are not really valid. Why? Because valid opinions only come from a very deep understanding of all the dynamics involved, along with expertise in the field of political strategy. Who is reading this with the necessary credentials to shine the light on a satisfatory way out?

Posted by: JIM HERD | September 27, 2011 11:43 AM    Report this comment

@Mr. Herd:

The FAA will follow the Herd.
The dynamics now are that the FAA is no longer a promoter of GA, it simply "tolerates" it. The GA vacuum is being filled by non-FAA, non-USA entities. The FAA has demonstrated that it's not a driver in the debate by doing little for piston fuels in the last 20 years. My guess is that the FAA will continue to ignore GA and, eventually, just “follow along” with whatever the rest of the world offers it.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | September 27, 2011 12:43 PM    Report this comment

The Chinese are taking the lead, their Continental engines are being designed for Autogas, while Lycoming spits on Autogas, and calls it "Pump gas", as if it wasn't even fit for your Veyron, or Rolls Royce! Government mucky-mucks are just collecting unjustifiable paychecks from people they have the power to rob!

Posted by: Ron Brown | September 28, 2011 3:06 AM    Report this comment

The system erases links - so if you would like to read the presentation at EASA go to
- dot com page --- knowledge data base -- powerpoint presentations.

Posted by: Lars Hjelmberg Hjelmco Oil Sweden | September 28, 2011 4:03 AM    Report this comment

I'm talking about lead in engine oil as it relates to disposing of the stuff

Posted by: Josh Johnson | September 28, 2011 4:27 AM    Report this comment

Aah, FAA non-leadership, a classic view of government trying to resolve a complex issue. I fly an LSA and use "pump" gas and I bitch about the corn "crap" and difficulty of finding real gas. I would love to see this issue resolved, but until GA, in particular, finds a solution outside of government, and forces the issue--we will be kidding ourselves!!!

Posted by: Kenneth Nolde | September 28, 2011 7:54 AM    Report this comment

Kenneth, Actually the FAA is "god" when it comes to GA in the USA. You cannot fly outside of the rules that they impose.

To quote Morpheus from the Matrix: "We've survived by hiding from them, by running from them. But they are the gatekeepers. They are guarding all the doors, they are holding all the keys."

There is no solution outside of the FAA as far as flying in the USA. Don't even think about it in today's world of TSA and lawyers.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | September 28, 2011 9:27 AM    Report this comment

Ron Brown comments that Lycoming spits on autogas, calling it pump gas. My reading was that Lycoming differentiates between autogas and pumpgas, the difference being that while autogas has potential, what we get from the pumps is of uncertain pedigree and quality.

Kent Misegades references the 94UL as progress, but from what I've seen that means lower HP and less effiency, re: Cessna's just announced version of the Cont IO-360.

Posted by: Richard Montague | September 28, 2011 10:26 AM    Report this comment

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