Industry faces challenge of scaling up alternative fuels: FAA Administrator

Washington DC
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While US operators such as United Airlines and Alaska Airlines have made big strides to use biofuels in their operations, challenges remain in scaling up production of these alternative fuels to satisfy a larger part of the 68.1 billion litres (18 billion gallons) of fuel that US passenger and cargo operators require per year, says US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) administrator Michael Huerta.

“The challenge we face now is scaling up,” says Huerta while addressing the audience during a 28 January panel at the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI) general meeting in Washington. “We need government and industry to continue to come together to make this happen,” he adds.

US airlines spent $49 billion on jet fuel in 2013, says Huerta. He points out that while these airlines used about 13.2 billion fewer litres of fuel than they did in 2000, the bill was $32 billion higher. With fuel representing as much as 40% of airlines’ average expenses, even a decrease in 10 cents per gallon could save the industry $1.7 billion annually, he says.

“Certainly cost competitiveness and commercial viability and scale remain our biggest nut to crack,” says Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice-president, legislative and regulatory policy for trade organisation Airlines for America (A4A).

The FAA’s goal for the industry to use 3.79 billion litres of advanced biofuels by 2018 in the USA is a “very ambitious target,” says Huerta. However, he notes that CAAFI has “come a long way” in the past few years.

Because countries around the world have different conditions, scaling up production will require developing a variety of new alternative fuels, says Huerta. Seven new types of alternative fuels – using feedstocks as diverse as fats, oils, sugar cellulose and carbon monoxide – are under consideration for FAA approval today, says Huerta.

“We anticipate a number of approvals to occur later on this year,” he says.

Replacing even a portion of the fuel that airlines need will help the industry, says A4A’s Pinkerton.

“While wholesale replacement of those 18 billion [gallons] in the near term probably isn’t likely,” Pinkerton says, “your intense focus on replacing just a portion of those gallons and also meeting an incremental demand of alternatives is simply going to be good business—good business for you, and good business for us.”