When auto gas was first approved via STC for certain aircraft, there was a lot of support and many airports started to sell auto gas. This was a good deal for many Rotax-powered aircraft, as well as STC’d certified aircraft. But now it is almost impossible to find auto gas on most airports. What happened?
Well, many things actually. First is that auto gas containing ethanol cannot be used in aircraft, and many states have mandated 10% or greater ethanol content for all grades of auto gas.
Ethanol is the greatest farm subsidy program ever invented. It increases farm pricing and reduces direct farm payments without costing the government anything. Even though it does not reduce the nation’s crude oil needs in any way, the amount of money made by the Ag industry is huge. Since avgas represents only 3/10 of 1% of the auto gas business, it is easy to understand that the Ag business is going to win this battle.
The second factor is our old problem of liability. Because auto gas is different than 100LL, it needs to be treated differently. This scares legal and insurance people, resulting in some airports declining to sell auto gas.
A third factor is just the cost associated with selling fuel at an airport. If an airport buys auto gas, it must do additional quality assurance to ensure that the fuel is clean and on spec. The fuel must be checked periodically and must be used within a certain time period. Once the airport adds its profit margin to these additional costs, the price is closer to 100LL than the auto gas you can buy at your local service station.
While almost no one is supporting auto gas usage any more, can this be changed? And what does all this tell us about the future fuels for GA?
It may be possible to change this, but I would not bet on it. GA vs. ethanol interests is like a high school football team playing NFL champions — not much of a contest.
What lessons can be learned from the auto gas program? The biggest thing is that GA is not large enough to support a second avgas. In the past, many FBOs sold two, and sometimes, three grades of avgas. But in today’s world, very few FBOs can afford the tankage, pumps and filtration necessary to meet EPA and legal requirements for two grades of avgas.
When some people talk about all of the different solutions to the future of avgas, it is apparent they have no idea how the business works and a thing called economic reality. GA is a very small business community with a huge liability cloud hanging over it. It would be very costly to build a new and/or separate infrastructure to produce and distribute any new product and insure it against any potential problem.
A 94 octane unleaded avgas based on the same components as 100LL can be manufactured and handled with the present system with no “surprises.” The only change will be the lower octane and this can be handled as long as we identify it up front.
Ben Visser is an aviation fuels and lubricants expert who spent 33 years with Shell Oil. He has been a private pilot since 1985. You can contact him at Visser@GeneralAviationNews.com.