20 October 2008

Avgas - The Next Nail?

We have discussed the Future of Avgas before in this blog, and some of the predictions made there started coming true on 15 October 2008. That was the day that United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) changed the environmental standards for lead contamination from 1.5 microgram/m3 to 0.15 microgram/m3.

The new standard requires that the sources of lead in the United States, which includes lead smelting, airplane fuels, military installations, mining and metal smelting, iron and steel manufacturing, industrial boilers and process heaters, hazardous waste incineration and production of batteries reduce their emissions by October 2011. The EPA has named avgas as one of the most "significant sources of lead".

The new rules aren't clear as to exactly how non-industrial sources of lead, like those from burning avgas, will be impacted.

Most pilots see this as a bad thing, as this new standard will probably mean that 100LL will no longer be available to be used in the USA after 2011, but the story is more complex than that. The tetra-ethyl lead that is used in leaded avgas is a neurotoxin (i.e "brain poison"), as are all its combustion products. Those stories that you may have heard that the tail-pipe products of leaded gasoline combustion are harmless are not correct, all compounds of lead are toxic to humans.

So what does lead in the environment do? Mostly it causes mental retardation in children as well as cardiovascular disease and death in people of all ages. New research has conclusively shown that even in very low levels environmental lead causes retardation in children. In fact the EPA's own research shows that the acceptable level shouldn't be the new 0.15 microgram/m3 standard, but more like 0.02 microgram/m3, which is seven and a half times lower.

The last round of environmental standards imposing the old level of 1.5 microgram/m3 came about in 1978 and that resulted in the end of leaded auto fuel. Why wasn't unleaded avgas invented back then? The answer to that question is complex, but the short answer is that it was, sort of. A 100 octane lead-free fuel hasn't been invented, and may in fact be impossible, but a new standard was developed for 82UL. Aircraft designed for the old minimally leaded 80/87 avgas could run on 82UL, but it was never put into production. As long as 100LL was still being made no refiner was interested in making 82UL. Also 82UL will only work for those low-compression engines that can use an 82 octane fuel. For example, you can't run a Cirrus SR22 with its high-compression Continental IO-550-N 310 hp engine on 82UL, so it is not a complete solution.

Essentially because 100LL wasn't caught in the old lead standards in 1978, there was no major motivator for the fuel and engine makers to come up with either an unleaded high octane fuel or to find another technical solution. There are some possibilities on the horizon, like Unison's LASAR ignition system that will allow some high compression engines to use premium auto fuel, but in general we are still dependant on 100LL here in 2008 and just accept the lead it is putting into the environment. We probably should have spent the last 30 years developing real solutions, because it has been obvious since 1978 that leaded avgas's days are numbered.

This is all happening in the USA, how does all this affect Canada? Well 100LL is all made in the USA and shipped to Canada. So if they stop making it, it won't be available here. The Canadian volumes of avgas used are tiny and won't justify starting up Canadian refining of this difficult to make (because of the lead) product.

The key question is then, should we try to fight these environmental concerns to keep flying on 100LL? Some organizations, like AOPA, argued during the hearings before the standard was changed that 100LL should be retained, saying that "any changes that would force an immediate change in the current composition of avgas would have a direct impact on the safety of flight and the very future of light aircraft in this country."

Essentially we have a choice here: keeping flying on 100LL and accept that it will cause mental retardation in children or stop using 100LL and find something else. Which is the right thing to do?

The EPA seems to have made their choice.

Additional reading:






10 October 2008

The Economic Situation - Is There Any Good News?

The last two weeks have finally seen the global credit crisis started by the US sub-prime mortgage problem expand to affect all the stock-markets worldwide as well as the the global financial industry. Already credit, loans and mortgages are harder to get.

David Smick, a global strategic adviser, noted that the US Government had hoped that "The "shock and awe" of the sheer size of the taxpayer-funded bailout would somehow restore confidence. Instead, stock markets collapsed and credit markets remained frozen."

Cessna's CEO Jack Pelton had some things to say about the availability of credit at NBAA this past week. Essentially he said that in the 2001 recession credit was available, but there were fewer buyers, today there are lots of buyers for business jets, but credit is drying up.

Just about every economist says that we are in for a time of economic slowdown, ranging from a recession to predictions of worse. How bad it will or won't be and how long it will last, all depend on who you listen to.

All of this has implications for anyone trying to sell anything that people normally borrow money for. For instance with mortgages already harder to get, the number of potential home buyers will shrink and house prices will fall.

So what does this mean for small aircraft owners? On the minus side it means that the number of prospective aircraft buyers will decrease and this means that used aircraft prices will fall even lower than where they are now. It may be very hard soon to sell an airplane at any price as no one will be able to get financing to buy them. As people lose their jobs, buying or even keeping an aircraft will not be a priority. Flying activity will probably decrease and this may make it hard for airports to make ends meet. Some aircraft manufacturers, especially small ones, will have trouble staying afloat as orders dry up. Some people trying to sell aircraft will see prices drop so low that they will decide not to sell and, instead, take them off the market instead.

It all sounds pretty bad for aviation. Is there any up side to all this?

There actually is! Most forecasts indicate that oil prices are set to fall as demand drops below current production. Analysts have predicted oil may fall to as low as $50 per barrel in the near future, although that will largely depend on whether OPEC manages to cut production to hold prices at their target of $100 per barrel. All this means that for the next while avgas prices should stabilize and may even go down, especially as demand for oil falls.

The other upside is that for people in the market to buy an aircraft and who can pay cash, there will be some real bargains out there in the next while. The trick will be to wait a while for prices to fall further than they have done already.

If some owners do manage to sell their aircraft this may result in a glut of hangar space freed up. I think hangars are unlikely to fall much in price, but space may be easier to find than it has been in the past.

So we may have cheaper gas, available hangarage and very cheap airplanes available.

Tough economic times always create problems for everyone. There is no doubt that some aircraft owners will have to sell planes due to job losses or other financial pressures. There will be bad news for some owners, but it won't be all bad news for everyone.

Some worthwhile background reading on the general financial situation:


09 October 2008

What do local politicians think of General Aviation?

Below is the reply to the message I sent to candidates in the Ottawa - Orleans riding.

The first reply was Marc Godbout, Liberal.  The other candidates have yet to reply.

Here is what he said...

From: marc@marcgodbout.com [mailto:marc@marcgodbout.com]
Sent: 9-Oct-08 13:24
To: Michael Shaw
Subject: Re: Pilots concerns
Dear Mr. Shaw:
Thank you for your recent e-mail and the issues of concern to pilots that you raise.
While I am not personally informed regarding your question regarding replacing ELT's, I  would certainly be willing to look into it. With regards to the bridge at Kettle Island, I do support the recommendation of the consultants report that Kettle Island would be the best choice for a new inter-provincial bridge.  While I agree with the location, I feel that a sincere effort needs to be made to lessen the environmental and social impact that locating the bridge there would have.  This includes how it would impact the Rockcliffe Airport and the Flying Club.
I have learned that while aviation emissions account for only 2% of all emissions, aviation has been an industry of focus for environmental
activists and governments in other parts of the world.  The Liberal Party believes that the first step in fighting rising greenhouse gas emissions is to put a price on carbon.  However, the Green Shift does not propose any increases to aviation fuel in the first year of the plan.
Marc Godbout


"Dear Sir (or Madam)

"I am writing to ask for your support on the following issues that are important to pilots and aircraft owners living in your riding.

"1. Currently the Department of Transport of Canada has regulatory changes in Canada Gazette, Vol. 142, No. 32 - August 9, 2008; Regulations Amending the Canadian Aviation Regulations (Parts I and VI - ELT). The effect of these changes is to require Canadian and foreign aircraft owners to install the newer 406 MHz Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) in order to be allowed to operate in Canadian airspace. Contrary to what is stated in the Regulatory Impact Statement written by the Department of Transport, these newer 406 MHz ELTs will cost aircraft owners significantly more than $61 million. Also, these ELTs are no more likely to survive an accident and transmit its location than could the older ELTs that were mandated under the original regulation. We believe Canada should not mandate installation of the 406 ELT, rather there installation should be at the aircraft owners discretion. For complete details please see the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association's website, Http://www.COPANational.org.

"2. We ask that you not support the building of the Kettle Island Bridge across the Ottawa River unless there are clear assurances that it will not result in displaced thresholds and reduced capabilities for pilots landing and taking-off at Rockcliffe Airport. Information on Rockcliffe Airport can be seen at the Rockcliffe Flying Club's website at http://rfc.ca and the Canada Aviation Museum's website at http://www.aviation.technomuses.ca/.

"3. We ask that you eliminate the avgas fuel excise tax of 11 cents per litre currently imposed on purchases of aviation gasoline. When Nav Canada was selected to manage and operate Canada's Air Navigation System it imposed fees on all aviation sectors using the navigation system, including the operators of piston powered aircraft. The taxes on fuel sold to the airlines was reduced to compensate them for having to pay the new Nav Canada's fees.
"No such relief was given to the operators of piston engine aircraft. We would like to see this tax eliminated to help Canada's flight schools, commercial operators and private flyers continue to play their part in Canada's transportation system and economy.

"Finally, close to 60,000 private aircraft cross the Canada - USA boarder each year. Like all travelers, pilots of personal aircraft face more and more difficulties crossing the border. We therefore ask that you carefully consider the impact of any border crossing measures on the aviation community.

"Should you have any questions on these issues please do not hesitate to contact me.

"I look forward to your positive response to these issues.

"Thank you,

"Michael Shaw
Captain COPA Flight 8, Ottawa