Aviation Fuel Supply Issues
In 2021, a nationwide problem developed in getting Jet A delivered due to a lack of truck drivers. Fuel truck drivers who had been laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic did not come back for many reasons. Fuel truck drivers require a commercial driver’s license (CDL) and a hazardous material endorsement. Not all commercial drivers have both; hence, not all are able to haul fuel. Then the demand side increased for Jet A due to airline travel picking up along with an increase in aerial firefighting across the Western U.S. One fuel broker NAAA spoke to indicated, as an example of the problem, that a helicopter operator with a fire contract had to drive his supply truck from Idaho to North Dakota to get fuel to continue with fire suppression efforts. Fuel availability and delivery problems developed in the western U.S. due to the fires and spread to the Central U.S. as fuel and the trucks delivering that fuel were diverted from the Central U.S. to the West. Compounding this problem was Hurricane Ida striking the Gulf Coast in late August/early September. Approximately 95% of U.S. oil production in the Gulf of Mexico was shut down.
NAAA operators reported having to provide fuel suppliers with a five to seven-day lead time when placing an order. They tried to anticipate needs ahead of time and place orders accordingly. This was not always the easiest to do when weather conditions prevented operations from proceeding as anticipated.
The supply issue was further worsened by increased demand for aerial application in 2021, particularly in the Corn Belt. Operators who had extra storage capacity had the advantage of having a buffer with which to match fuel ordering and use. Some operators would split loads between their own additional locations or with other operators to be able to keep their tanks full. However, splitting loads often requires paying more due to the extra time and distance to offload at multiple locations, but it was a successful tactic during the season. Other operators were forced to buy fuel directly from fixed base operators (FBO) at the same fueling point and price as transient aircraft. While the biggest problems were in the West and Central U.S., eastern operators also had some difficulties. The Eastern U.S. also had a truck driver shortage, with the situation being exacerbated by the shutdown of a major pipeline. On May 7, 2021, Colonial Pipeline, an oil pipeline system that originates in Houston and carries fuels, including Jet A, mainly to the Southeastern United States, suffered a ransomware cyberattack that impacted computerized equipment managing the pipeline.
On May 9 the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration issued an emergency exemption that granted truck drivers in certain states relief from the federal hours of service limits and other safety regulations to get fuel to those that urgently needed it to keep the cogs of commerce rotating. During
this crisis, affected Eastern U.S. operators found the same problems (and solutions) as operators in other parts of the country.
While most NAAA operators were able to get fuel eventually, there were some delays that affected operations. All operators and allied members in the fuel industry NAAA communicated with regarding fuel shortages mentioned that good communication between the operator and their fuel supplier was the most important factor in dealing with the issue. One fuel supplier indicated that if operators were able to secure a contract with their fuel supplier, they would have the same delivery priority as FBOs that retail fuel. Another fuel supplier is taking action to buy more of its own fuel delivery trucks in 2022 so they do not have to rely as heavily on outsourced fuel transportation.
Some state governments urged suppliers to continue delivery to certain essential activities, such as aerial firefighting. During the Arab Oil Embargo in the 1970s, NAAA secured government backing that fuel suppliers replenish aerial application operations’ fuel before other users due to its essential service to agriculture and food production. NAAA has been in conversation with USDA senior advisors to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack about these recent fuel supply issues. As we advance into 2022, no one is predicting what the fuel supply situation will be with certainty. As reported in The Wall Street Journal, at least one major oil company is not planning on expanding. On Dec. 1, 2021 Exxon Mobil Corp. announced “it will maintain a conservative budget for the next five years as the outlook for oil and gas demand remains murky while coronavirus-led economic risks persist and some countries attempt to wean themselves off fossil fuels,” the Journal reported. Exxon appears to be hedging its bets that fuel demand might be lower, but if demand peaks again, will fuel be available? It is expected that fuel truck drivers will still be in short supply in 2022. Qualified drivers take some time to train and put on the road. Consider the following suggestions and questions to ask yourself when preparing for the 2022 season.
- Keep in touch with your fuel supplier before and during the application season.
- Do you have enough storage capacity to buffer delivery delays? Should you increase your fuel storage tank capacity?
- Does your operation have someone assigned to manage fuel? Look forward and predict fuel use especially with long lead times and a limited storage buffer.
- Network. Can you split a load with another operator or other users of Jet A?
- Be prepared to make the case that aerial applications are essential operations. Visit AgAviation.org/aboutagaviation. Agriculture is considered essential: www.cisa.gov/publication/guidance-essential-criticalinfrastructure-workforce
Updated February 2022.
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