The San Carlos Airport, once found to exceed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air quality standards for lead emissions, will be the first in the state to sell an unleaded option which proponents say is cheaper, better for aircraft maintenance and environmentally superior.
“This is the rare opportunity when everybody is getting something they want,” said Dan DeMeo, manager and owner of fuel seller Rabbit Aviation.
“The pilots want it. The county wants it. And those who are into the environment are overwhelmingly satisfied.”
County supervisors have been talking about unleaded fuel since last year and in the last week gave its blessing to tweak the contract with Rabbit to sell unleaded fuel. The county will also halt a 10-cent-per-gallon fuel flowage fee to encourage more sales through the life of the current contract which runs through January 2016.
DeMeo said a fuel truck is already dedicated to unleaded fuel and the company is in the process of converting an existing storage tank and finding a location at the airport. Construction on the fuel system is hoped for May 2015 with sales ready to go in early summer, he said.
In the meantime, Rabbit is buying small amounts of 700 gallons at a time and selling it to a select group of customers so they can try it out.
Pilots are excited about the prospect of unleaded fuel in no small part because of it is a less expensive alternative that can be used in probably about one-third of the aircraft housed at the airport, he said.
Other aircraft can be modified for a small fee.
“Imagine buying a Toyota Corolla and finding you have to buy Lexus gas,” he said.
The unleaded fuel is at least $1 less a gallon when a full 9,000 gallons is delivered because it must be transported from Canada. Most training aircraft at the airport burn 8 gallons an hour so at 50 flights hours a month, pilots are saving $400 in that same period, said DeMeo, himself a pilot and user of unleaded fuel.
The airport predicts initial demand for unleaded fuel will be lower than the low-lead type because a majority of piston engine aircraft parked there aren’t certified on the former, according to Freda Manuel, the county’s real property services manager, in a report to the Board of Supervisors.
But DeMeo said converting is cost effective because the paperwork costs run less than $200.
In two weeks, he said unleaded users have already paid for the supplemental certificate they need to use it.
Although the moratorium on the fuel fee means a loss of about $8,700 in revenue to the airport enterprise fund over the remainder of the agreement, the addition of unleaded fuel also means sales tax money for the county.
During the 1990s, unleaded fuel was a common item to stock but consolidation of facilities led to only the more lucrative option being kept on hand, DeMeo said.
The Federal Aviation Administration has a 2018 deadline for certifying an unleaded fuel option that can be used by any aircraft without modification. The county is opting not to wait. Last year, the board began discussing a shift on the heels of an EPA report on aviation lead emissions.
For three months, EPA monitored 17 general aviation airports in the nation including San Carlos which, along with McClellan-Palomar Airport in San Diego County, had lead levels beyond its standards. Nearby Palo Alto Airport fell slightly below the threshold.
The EPA chose the county-owned San Carlos Airport for the one-year study because its 2008 lead emissions were estimated at .53 tons per year, according to the agency’s fact sheet on the monitoring program.
County officials at the time said monitors installed in awkward locations contributed to the high results.
DeMeo didn’t have hard and fast numbers on hand but said a rough ballpark estimate is the airport could remove about a ton of lead from the environment by selling more than 100,000 gallons of unleaded fuel rather than the low lead option.