Commodities can lower the cost of flying

Commodities, by one definition, are “mass-produced unspecialized products.” Typical traded commodities include grain, coffee, sugar, pork bellies, feeder cattle, industrial and precious metals, natural gas and oil. They are produced worldwide in enormous quantities, resulting in most cases in far lower real costs than a century ago when limitations to transportation and political barriers to trade restricted producers to their own local markets.

For many years, aircraft manufacturers have made use of some of these commodities, for instance wood or aluminum as primary construction materials. In the 1920s and ’30s, it was not uncommon to find mass-produced automotive components in aircraft, for instance window cranks or even an engine — the Funk Model B featured an engine derived from the Ford “B” motor car engine (my great uncle Eugene Misegades worked at the Funk aircraft plant in Coffeyville, Kan.).

Today, the popular Rotax 912-series aircraft engines represent only a few percent of the company’s engine business, sharing engineering and many components from powerplants used in many other applications such as boats, snowmobiles, UAVs, etc. Homebuilders, always interested in keeping costs low, have long taken advantage of mass-produced auto engine conversions and, more recently, consumer electronics in their cockpits (iPad, anyone?).

But what about fuel? In the March 1981 issue of EAA’s Sport Aviation, EAA Founder Paul Poberezny commented on the high cost and uncertainty we face in aviation being dependent on a “boutique” fuel such as 100LL. “The type of aircraft engines we develop for the future must correspond to the types of fuel available down the road. That’s why the EAA has long been in favor of using the most readily available fuel on the market — auto gas.  …. We are rapidly approaching the point where it is a choice of having limited aviation fuel or empty tanks.”  Unlike other organizations that prefer committee meetings and decades of taxpayer-funded research over real action, the EAA invested considerable time and money in autogas research, with the first STCs being issued during AirVenture 1982.

Three decades later, despite a recent study that showed that over 80% of the entire piston engine aircraft fleet can run safely and legally on mogas, it remains a rare commodity at our airports. The result of rising avgas costs has been a dramatic reduction in the number of hours that pilots fly annually, which has had a domino effect on aircraft sales, maintenance revenue, hangar rent, online sales of pilot-related products, large areas of empty space in AirVenture 2012 display hangars, etc.

Overseas, the boutique fuel avgas is either far too expensive for most or has disappeared altogether.  Mike Brooks, Director of Aviation for the famous mission aviation organization JAARS, described the situation at my EAA chapter meeting this month: “With the cost of avgas now at $18-$25 per gallon in the countries where we operate, we are converting to a fleet of aircraft that can all operate on Jet-A. It is generally available and costs only $4-$5 a gallon by comparison. We’re looking not only at expanding our fleet of turbine-powered airplanes and helicopters, but also at using Jet-A diesel powered airplanes in the future.”

Tapping into the enormous production of gasoline and Jet-A is a common-sense solution to the rising cost of aviation-specific fuels for piston aircraft, but we’re playing catchup in the U.S. compared to the rest of the world that is well on its way to a two fuel, mogas/Jet-A future. The added twist that complicates this transition is our country’s ethanol production mandates that are making it difficult to supply our airports with ethanol-free mogas. Although it is readily available at fuel terminals, where unadulterated gasoline is blended with ethanol before deliveries, fuel suppliers are under severe pressure from the EPA to exhaust their “RINs” (Renewable Identification Numbers), the means for the federal government to track ethanol sales and economically punish those who do not comply with the mandates.

As Michael Cardinell of Motiva Enterprises (a joint venture of Saudi Refining and Shell) described his dilemma to me recently: “Yes, we do have 93 AKI ethanol-free fuel at many of our terminals, but we can only reduce our surplus of RINs by selling ethanol-blended fuel. For this reason we do not generally sell ethanol-free products.”

The solutions to the ethanol dilemma are fairly simple really — either forbid the blending of ethanol in premium, 91+ AKI fuel, or repeal the ethanol mandates altogether.  The consequence of doing nothing, as Paul Poberezny succinctly put it back in 1981, is the same: It is a choice of having limited aviation fuel or empty tanks.  Taking advantage of large markets for commodities and mass-produced components is the only way I can see to significantly reduce the cost of flying in the near future.

The GAfuels Blog is written by two private pilots concerned about the future availability of fuels for piston-engine aircraft: Dean Billing, Sisters, Ore., a pilot, homebuilder and expert on autogas and ethanol, and Kent Misegades, Cary, N.C., an aerospace engineer, aviation sales rep for U-Fuel, and president of EAA1114.

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