By MICHAEL G. MOONEY
The debate about using mogas in aircraft has been around my entire aviation career. I’m a pilot and love all things aviation, but after 25 years working as an aviation fuel supplier, I have some real concerns about the use of automotive motor gasoline (mogas) in aircraft.
Aviation fuel suppliers are often portrayed as the bad guys due to our strict policy prohibiting the sale of mogas by branded FBOs. I will try to explain what drives this policy.
In my younger days I would engage in debates with pilots at trade shows about the technical issues of mogas vs. avgas, such as RVP, ethanol, additives, octane, volatility, and quality. Like most debates, both parties walk away even more convinced their position is correct.
In 2005 I began to oversee the purchase of insurance for our company. Every spring for the past eight years, I have traveled to Atlanta, New York, and London to meet with aviation insurance underwriters during our policy renewal. There are only about a dozen underwriters willing to write the high level of insurance limits aviation fuel suppliers and distributors require.
As added protection for our branded dealers, we extend $50 million in coverage to those who qualify in the form of an excess aviation products policy. At these meetings we advise the underwriters on the status of our loss control program for our aviation products liability policy that covers the avgas and jet fuel we distribute. Drawing from all the knowledge and experience gained from these visits and combined with my more than 35 years in the aviation industry, I have identified the following concerns about the use of mogas in aircraft:
Oil refiners will not approve mogas for aviation use
I am not aware of a single oil refiner in the USA that will approve any grade of automotive gasoline they produce for aviation use. Without their approval and their underlying products liability coverage, you are using a product without the manufacturer’s warranty. Therefore, any underwriter placing a policy on behalf of someone wishing to sell mogas for aviation use is taking on a tremendous amount of liability. If there was a tragic accident resulting from the poor quality or inappropriate performance of the mogas and the plaintiff’s attorney names everyone on the suit, as is the norm, the refiner will simply point out that they do not warrant their automotive gasoline for use in aircraft.
Mogas is not the same as avgas
Knowing what I know about refined products distribution systems for mogas, I would never use it in the airplane I was going to fly. Most people have no real knowledge of the behind-the-scenes process and logistical journey mogas makes from the refinery to market. The more rural the location, the more steps in the journey. There are hundreds of pages of industry standards on how aviation fuel must be handled. These standards are referenced in the contracts between refineries, distribution terminals, and petroleum transporters using pipelines, marine vessels, rail cars, and road transport vehicles. The primary purpose of these standards is to ensure the quality of the product is controlled and maintained. These industry standards often have the power of law when applied in the courts. By comparison, the industry standards pertaining to mogas are not as complex because it was never intended to be used in an airplane.
Insurance for mogas
Aviation products liability claims are often blamed for bringing general aviation to the edge of extinction and played a major role in reducing the production of single engine aircraft in the USA. I am confident that aviation fuel products liability was a driving force behind the decision of some major oil companies to remove their brands from the aviation fuel marketplace. There have been three major oil company brands removed from the market in just the last two years.
Suppliers and distributors purchase aviation product liability insurance policies with very large limits because of the litigious society we live in. As an aviation fuel distributor, we cannot buy aviation products liability insurance for the sale of mogas for use in aircraft. The reason is that we cannot certify and document that mogas meets aviation industry standards. In order to have mogas meet industry standards, we would have to modify refineries and terminals to meet the specific and detailed aviation specifications. That would not be cost effective.
Aviators using mogas often fill up their cans at a gas station, or buy from FBOs willing to sell mogas. I would strongly advise any FBO selling mogas for aviation to do one very important thing: Ask your insurance agent or broker to provide an insurance certificate approved by the actual policy underwriter that has an endorsement that specifically states something to the effect that “this aviation products liability policy extends coverage to the sale of automotive motor gasoline (mogas) for use in aircraft.”
From what all underwriters have told me, this may be difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. Otherwise, if there ever is a claim, an unfortunate moment will result when it is discovered that the “products” policy was not for mogas sold for aviation use — it was for industry standard aviation fuel only.
I also suggest that any pilot who uses mogas in his airplane ask the FBO for a copy of its insurance certificate with this endorsement clearly stated.
The future of avgas
I found a photocopy of an article from an early 1990s issue of General Aviation News. The headline announced “Industry, FAA anticipate move to unleaded avgas by 1996.” Here we are 17 years later, and we are still using leaded avgas. Some say it may be another 10 years before a transition is completed.
Regardless, we all know that it is a question of when — not if — leaded avgas is banned. None of the various avgas fuel grades with unleaded formulations such as UL82, UL94, or UL97 has made it to the marketplace. The reason is economics: Distribution of these will require segregated storage and delivery system logistics from the refinery to the airport. At this point, no one is willing or able to justify the cost of this infrastructure.
We participate in a task force planning the future of avgas and it is made up of people from every segment of the aviation industry. Early on we agreed on one thing: This industry cannot support two separate grades of avgas.
It is my hope that we develop an unleaded drop-in solution. An unleaded drop-in product should be able to use the existing avgas distribution infrastructure, simplifying and reducing the cost of the process.
One of the reasons behind the extended delay in bringing a solution to market has been overcoming the challenge of a replacement fuel safely meeting the requirements of the entire GA fleet, especially those with high-compression engines.These high-compression engines burn a majority of the 100LL grade of avgas sold in the general aviation market.
I applaud those who are considering an “aviation grade mogas.” I hope they know they must overcome the challenges regarding product segregation and quality control in the supply chain. Perhaps they can. I put myself in the shoes of aircraft owners who can use a product with the performance specifications of mogas and those who experience maintenance issues with using 100LL. They compare the price of mogas with avgas and are further frustrated. I understand their frustration, but they are comparing apples and oranges.
There are significant costs associated with the requirements of producing and distributing a specialized aviation gasoline product such as 100LL. Unlike automotive motor gasoline, there are economies of scale that are difficult to achieve. Avgas, by volume, represents less than 2/10ths of 1% of the gasoline produced and sold around the world.
When the industry and the FAA settle on a final specification, I hope it is one that refiners are willing and able to produce. Unfortunately, as of today, we are left with only nine refineries producing avgas in the USA and Canada. This is down from the peak of 39 in 1989.
I wish we could end up having a designated aviation gasoline product that is more economical, more abundant, lead free and meets the requirements of the EPA while also meeting the performance requirements of the entire GA fleet. My gut tells me that is a very big wish.
Michael Mooney is vice president and Chief Risk Officer for EPIC, an aviation fuel supplier based in Salem, Oregon.