OPINION: A safe transition to unleaded aviation fuel must be methodical and cautious 

By Will Day, Executive Director, Alaska Air Carriers Association, and Adam White, Government and Legislative Affairs Advocate, Alaska Airmen’s Association 

Alaska’s reliance on aviation to meet basic human needs is unparalleled in the United States. A staggering 82% of our communities are situated beyond the road system, making air transportation the primary resource for travel, emergency healthcare, medicine, food, fuel, and other essential supplies and services.1 According to the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research, in 2023, 130,850 commercial piston-driven flights transported 201,729 passengers and 30.6 million pounds of freight and mail within Alaska. Almost 50% of all commercial flights to non-hub2 destinations were conducted by piston-engine aircraft, which comprised a 30% market share of passengers and 20% of freight and mail transported. These aircraft operate on leaded fuel, which has been used since the 1970s and has developed a reputation for being resilient and reliable in Alaska’s extreme environment. Our state’s commercial aviation industry agrees with transitioning to a safe, viable, unleaded fuel. Yet, we must proceed methodically and cautiously to avoid interrupting critical air services or experiencing fuel-related safety events and potential accidents. 

In October of last year, the Environmental Protection Agency found “that lead emissions to air from certain aircraft engines cause or contribute to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health and welfare.3” So, how much precisely does leaded aviation fuel endanger Alaskans? In 2013, the Municipality of Anchorage conducted a lead air concentration study at Merrill Field, the airport with the most leaded fuel flights in the state. The city placed samplers at the location where lead was estimated to be most highly concentrated and found that the highest three-month rolling average was 0.07 micrograms4—less than half the Clean Air Act standard of 0.15 micrograms, which assures “public health protection, including protecting the health of ‘sensitive’ populations such as asthmatics, children, and the elderly.”5 Local evidence indicates Alaskans are safely below national air quality standards.  

Regardless of the relative safety of our communities’ lead exposure, our industry recognizes that no lead in the atmosphere is safer than minimal lead. We support the Federal Aviation Administration’s Eliminate Aviation Gasoline Lead Emissions initiative, which aims to “eliminate leaded aviation fuels in piston-engine aircraft safely by the end of 2030.”6 While six years may seem sufficient, we face many unique and complex challenges that make such a timeline risky. Our national legislators are keenly aware of that risk, which is why our industry applauds Senator Sullivan’s and Senator Mukowski’s success in extending the transition deadline to 2032 for Alaska. 

Our first hurdle is finding a safe replacement fuel that functions flawlessly in all piston-driven aircraft in Alaska. Our air carriers need evidence that any replacement has been extensively tested in each engine and airframe7 they operate in conditions similar to Alaska’s extreme climate. Only then will they trust it to carry their passengers, crew, and cargo. Practically, this means a replacement fuel must remain viable while stagnating for up to a year in sub-zero temperatures. While the FAA has recently certified a replacement unleaded fuel manufactured in the private sector by General Aviation Modifications, Inc. (GAMI), this certification does not imply adequate testing to ensure safety in our flying environment. Our air carriers and suppliers have been unable to obtain evidence from GAMI of sufficient testing to verify that this new fuel is safe to use in Alaska. 

The next obstacle we face is economic viability. Any increase in aviation fuel costs indirectly translates to increased costs for customers and/or a reduction in air services. According to GAMI, its fuel is forecast to cost $0.70 to $1.05 more per gallon than today’s leaded fuel8. Alaska’s largest consumer uses approximately 1,000,000 gallons of leaded fuel annually, translating to an increased expense of $700,000 to $1,050,000. Smaller air carriers would see annual expense increases of around $35,000 to $52,500. These companies cannot absorb costs of this magnitude. They will be forced to raise seat fares, cargo rates, and fuel delivery fees accordingly and/or reduce services, which means rural Alaskans will wind up paying the price of transitioning to a higher-cost, unleaded aviation fuel. A lead-free future is worth paying for, but how much can we afford? 

Once a safe and economical fuel has been developed, fuel distributors must vet it before delivering it to customers across the state. Distributors must see evidence that the fuel has been thoroughly tested for stability and viability in all fuel tanks, fuel transfer systems, and piston-driven aircraft. No fuel on the market has successfully demonstrated these characteristics to distributors’ satisfaction. When a suitable fuel is developed, distributors will need years to disseminate it throughout Alaska’s vast aviation network. 

Above all else, our industry values the safety of the Alaskans we serve, our workers, and the public. Our safety professionals have not seen scientific evidence that Alaskans are being exposed to any hazardous amount of lead. Our greatest concerns are the substantial risks and costs of transitioning from a highly reliable fuel to an inadequately proven alternative. The repercussions of mistakes in single-engine aviation are severe, and many Alaskans rely entirely on this industry. We must do everything possible to verify that a replacement fuel is as safe and economical as the leaded fuel we use today. Until that future arrives, we must retain access to the current leaded aviation fuel to ensure the perpetual availability of critical air services throughout Alaska. 

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