House Lawmakers Hear General Aviation Industry Concerns About Leaded Fuels, Workforce Shortages, and More

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Aviation Subcommittee met this week to hear from a panel of general aviation experts and industry stakeholders about the state of the private flight services industry in 2022. 

The roughly two-hour hearing, whose subject was “The State of General Aviation,” provided a platform for lawmakers and trade groups to call out inefficiencies plaguing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), workforce and supply chain issues affecting manufacturers, airports, and other key players, and their ambitions and concerns for new flight technologies in U.S. airspace. The hearing also spotlighted an ongoing effort by regulators and industry to phase out lead in the 100-octane gasoline used by piston-engine aircraft (avgas for short), by 2030 due to its well-documented and harmful public health and environmental effects. 

“While the economy is on the move and the future of aviation remains bright, [general aviation] still faces several issues that must be addressed,” said Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA), chair of the Aviation Subcommittee. 

Despite the associated economic and technical complexities and regulatory hurdles, stakeholders and lawmakers expressed varying levels of optimism about the state of general aviation ahead of a major federal reauthorization coming for the FAA in 2023. Several speakers called to a pre-Covid study from 2018, sponsored by industry groups, that determined general aviation generates $247 billion in economic output and supports some 1.2 million jobs nationwide, and noted high safety marks for the industry at large. 

Witnesses included: 

  • Mark Baker, President and CEO, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association 
  • Chris Rozansky, Executive Director, Naples Airport Authority 
  • James Viola, President and CEO, Helicopter Association International 
  • Pete Bunce, President and CEO, General Aviation Manufacturers Association 
  • Greg Pecoraro, President and CEO, National Association of State Aviation Officials 
  • Ed Bolen, President and CEO, National Business Aviation Association 
  • Timothy Obitts, President and CEO, National Air Transportation Association 

2023 FAA Reauthorization 

Congress last extended the FAA’s authority and funding in 2018 — the first five-year authorization legislation for the federal agency since 1982. The reauthorization recommended $97 billion in funding through September 2023 and covered a wide array of policy responsibilities for FAA, including funding new airport infrastructure and regulating unmanned aerial systems, aircraft noise, passenger protections, and more. 

Fourteen months out from the end date for the last authorization, industry stakeholders have new regulatory responsibilities and concerns in mind. Larsen noted Advanced Air Mobility, or AAM —generally known as the concept of incorporating unmanned or other new aircraft to more efficiently connect rural and urban communities — will be front and center, and could dramatically affect general aviation fields like commercial and medical transport. The federal government will need to determine how to safely integrate new AAM vehicles into U.S. airspace, he said. Asked by Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-NJ) whether FAA’s current rulemaking and certification approaches suffice for innovations liked unmanned aerial systems and AAM, several witnesses responded in the negative. Baker, of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, noted despite rulemaking discussions for AAM aircraft ongoing for six years, a formal certification process is “basically on the shelf.” 

Rozansky, of Naples Airport, said the next reauthorization bill must significantly increase traditional funding streams, such as Airport Improvement Program grants, that airports of all sizes depend upon to make infrastructural upgrades. Obitts, of the National Air Transportation Association trade group, said also that the 2023 process should be treated by Congress as a chance to innovate by allocating funds to leverage more private investment in airport infrastructure like hangars and invest in growing a more capable, robust workforce for the FAA itself, as well as apprenticeships for mechanics and manufacturing workers. Legislators should also plan to write in language that removes antiquated rules and regulations that “no longer make sense” and have slowed down industry advancement, Obitts said. 

Removing lead from aviation fuels 

As Baker put it, “the most pressing matter of fact facing GA is today is removing lead from our avgas.” While environmental and citizen groups have pressed for more regulation of lead in avgas for years, citing research-supported links between emissions and heightened lead levels in the blood of children living near airports, the Environmental Protection Agency has not declared lead-based fuel as a toxic substance, and industry and regulators alike have struggled to find a suitable replacement for it to keep the airline industry running. However, the Biden administration has given new attention to the issue, and in February the FAA and industry groups announced the Eliminate Aviation Gasoline Lead Emissions (EAGLE) Initiative, which aims to phase our lead-based avgas by 2030. (“I remain hopeful we can get there much sooner,” Baker said.) 

While witnesses expressed support for the idea, Rozansky said it must not occur at the expense of general aviation service or operability of aircraft. “We must thoughtfully consider and prepare to execute a transition without putting the vital services [general aviation] provides at risk,” he said. “We’re eager to better understand what types of infrastructure improvements are needed to support the adoption of these new fuels.” 

Those infrastructure improvements will include development and testing of alternative fuels across entire aircraft fleets, under the EPA’s goals. Responding to a question from Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), Bunce, of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, noted a structure has been crafted to accelerate the process of fleet-wide testing and ultimately approval of one or multiple fuels to power aircraft. He said Congress — and the Aviation Subcommittee in particular — should keep its pulse on the issue and remain in touch with FAA and other agencies like the Department of Energy about progress on the issue.  

Only one lawmaker, Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA), was critical about plans to eliminate reliance on leaded avgas, saying “this raises the cost for everybody.” He cited a recent controversy in California in which the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors banned sales of leaded fuels at its Reid-Hillview Airport after a study found elevated blood lead levels in children living nearby, forcing many pilots to refuel elsewhere. (The FAA opened an investigation in response, due to the local ban violating terms of government grants.) “The market isn’t doing this,” he said of phasing out leaded fuels. “This is self-imposed regulatory ideology and policy coming from the government,” Perry said. Baker responded, “I believe that the opportunity for alternative fuel to be made by the current refineries is high, and so they will have the opportunity to change over to that other fuel. It’s the right thing to do. But I will also tell you, we need the time to make that transition safely or we’re going to risk a very significant part of the aviation system.” 

Workforce shortage 

Bunce, whose group represents aircraft manufacturers, sounded the alarm on recent workforce issues: “I have never seen a time when the manufacturers and maintenance organizations are under such tough times.” Even with worker protections afforded by the Aviation Manufacturing Jobs Protection Act enacted in March 2021, nearly all factories are down 20 percent in their ranks of maintenance technicians and engineers, he said. 

Others offered similar stories: Baker pointed to shortages of pilots — his organization has forecasted a need for 600,000 more in the next 20 years — and mechanics and technicians for planes; Rozansky mentioned many contract towers have lost traffic controllers to FAA towers with higher-paying positions; and Viola said Covid pushed many seasoned helicopter pilots and technicians into early retirement. 

There have been efforts to fill these worker needs for years, including STEM outreach programs to attract high schoolers to such careers and grant programs created by Section 625 of the 2018 FAA reauthorization law that focus on aviation workforce development, specifically to address shortages of pilots and aviation maintenance technical workers. Bunce made the case that the next reauthorization should expand those grants to manufacturing jobs as well. 

Even the FAA is struggling, stakeholders said, with staff shortages and newer hires lacking the institutional knowledge of prior generations of staff — referred to by Obitts as “brain drain”— and in turn producing negative trends like delayed issuance of regulations and certifications.  

Some lawmakers asked about opportunities arising from these disruptions and from innovations on the horizon with AAM and unmanned vehicles. Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-N.J.) asked if the government could help address obstacles like high costs for pilot training, which AOPA’s website says “conservatively” cost $8,000 to $10,000 but can exceed $18,000. Baker said there could be more potential for federal grants or loans to finance training for young people, and that costs are lower for unmanned aircraft certification, which could be a start for drawing more low-income workers to the profession. 

Rep. Jake Auchincloss’ (D-MA) also asked whether allowing more immigrants into the country to be certified as traffic controllers could help with the shortages at contract towers. Rozansky responded that those towers are not permitted to develop their own workforces presently, since they must be trained and certified by the FAA, but that federal government could explore modifying that rule and allow tower operators to develop their own workforces and deal with staffing shortages. 

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