An unleaded fuel option for planes is coming to Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport, but the timeline isn’t known yet.
According to Airport Director Paul Anslow, the fixed-based operators who provide the gas for planes are working to provide 94UL, which is unleaded fuel. But cost, the supply chain and infrastructure are the obstacles in the way — for now.
“We're working with the FBOs, with fuel producers, with the distributors to try to make it go as fast as we can,” he said.
Anslow said the airport is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to receive grants for the infrastructure.
That includes things like a fuel tank and a fuel truck since it would be an entirely different fuel than what is currently provided at the airport. Putting the wrong fuel into an airplane is similar to putting diesel into a gas-powered car, Anslow confirmed.
“...around 10, 11 p.m., a truck comes by and tops off every one of (a flight school’s) planes, if that (person) does not know which planes require which fuels and mixes it, then you’re going to either, at a minimum damage the engine, or worse, cause a mishap with the engine failing in air,” he said.
Anslow said he’s confident they will receive grants for a fuel tank, but the fuel truck is a different story. The FBOs would need to purchase them, but the airport is working on incentives to “legally offset those costs” if those costs are passed down to the consumer.
Robert Olislagers, the senior coordinator with the EAGLE Project, said that about 150,000 piston engine airplanes in the United States can use the 94UL fuel, which is about 68-70% of the aircraft.
At RMMA, there are 341 single-engine prop, 70 multi-engine prop, 43 jets and 21 helicopters according to Ben Miller, senior planner of RMMA. How many of those planes would be able to use 94UL, Airport Director Paul Anslow said he didn’t know.
Olislagers, who is the former airport director at Centennial Airport, said about half of the fleet at Centennial can use unleaded fuel and that number is probably similar at RMMA.
“I don't know if (RMMA) has already gone down that path (transitioning to 94UL) but I would assume that they are because that's frankly the easiest way to begin the process of reducing (leaded) fuel and taking it out of the inventory,” Olislagers said.
He said that a potential reason why airports haven’t used the fuel in the past despite its availability is due to ease and cost. Anslow also pointed out it was recently approved, and it takes time to roll the fuel out.
“(Having one fuel at the airport) you only need one tank, one truck. If you're going to have two tanks and two trucks with two different fuels, there are two issues with that: it increases cost and there's always the possibility of miss fueling where you might put low-octane fuel in an airplane that needs high-octane fuel,” Olislagers said.
He also said a tank can cost as much as $250,000 if design, engineering, construction and buying are required, and a fueling truck can cost $100,000. He said the fuel is produced at a higher cost because the demand for it is lower.
At Centennial Airport, a news release reads that 94UL fuel will be available by summer of 2023, and the airport is incentivizing the transition to unleaded fuel.
“The cost differential is about $4 a gallon if we have the fuel delivered in … 350-gallon totes. And so the airport will be stepping up and paying that differential to bring it in line with the cost of the low-lead fuel,” Mike Fronapfel, Centennial Airport’s CEO and executive director said.
Those funds, however, come from a $4 million grant from the FAA that was set for a new air traffic control tower that the airport already budgeted for. With the new grant, Centennial will use their already budgeted funds to go towards the subsidies.
RMMA doesn’t have that kind of cash on hand.
“We don't have that $4 million, so we're doing what we can,” he said.
Letters from Superior
The news comes as the Town of Superior sent a letter addressed to the Federal Aviation Administration and the Jefferson County Commissioners to make unleaded fuel available at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport.
Contrary to the Town of Superior, Westminster will not be asking the Jefferson County Commissioners and the Federal Aviation Administration to make unleaded fuel available at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport.
According to City Spokesperson Andy Le, the city is not planning to write a letter but pointed to a letter sent to the Environmental Protection Agency supporting their efforts in the endangerment finding regarding leaded fuel use at airports.
In the letter from Superior, the council asked for a timeline to phase out leaded aviation gasoline by May 18, 2023.
“The Superior Town Board is concerned about the continuing and irreversible damage that lead air pollution from avgas inflicts on our community – particularly to the health and development of exposed children,” the letter reads.
The letter said that nine Superior residents tested their homes for lead — two samples per household— and each came back positive.
It also pointed to unleaded options that are already available and options that will be available in the future.
“Additionally, there is already a 94-octane unleaded fuel by Swift Fuels that has been approved for use by two-thirds of covered aircraft. Other fully unleaded fuel options are likely to be available for use by the entire piston-engine fleet within the next several years,” the letter reads.
A more thorough analysis
Olislagers, who is working on the FAA’s EAGLE initiative, an effort to eliminate leaded fuel from aviation use, said that although their timeline is to be lead-free by 2030, they are working to be earlier.
“We're working on trying to stay ahead of the regulatory process,” he said.
He noted that it’s a long process and one of the steps is for the Environmental Protection Agency to find an endangerment finding, which he said “will become a positive finding.”
That will then trigger regulations from both the EPA and the FAA on leaded fuel.
According to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment spokesperson Gabi Johnson, lead levels in counties with regional airports are low.
“...based on a review of currently available county-wide data, we are not seeing an increase in blood lead levels among children who live in counties with regional airports,” she wrote in an email.
However, the department is conducting a more thorough analysis, similar to a study done in Santa Clara County, California with the Reid-Hillview Airport that found the levels of lead in children increased significantly the closer they were to the Reid-Hillview Airport. The study also found that children living downwind of the airport were even more likely to have significantly higher levels of lead in their blood.