The House looks set to pass legislation for jet engine safety precautions, but without an accompanying Senate bill on that chamber’s floor, the legislation may remain grounded.
A bill (HB 569) by Rep. Toby Overdorf calls on public airports to implement potentially lifesaving measures to keep ground vehicle emission-reducing fluid away from jet fuel additives and under lock and key. Incidents, mostly in Opa Locka and Punta Gorda, at three airports across the country have grounded thirty planes since November 2017.
“We’re keeping (the fluid) outside of the areas of operation for aircraft,” said Overdorf, a Stuart Republican. “It sounds simple, but usually the simple stuff are the things that save lives.”
At Opa-locka in August 2018, more than a dozen planes were affected when airport servicers mistakenly loaded diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) into jets’ anti-icing systems instead of fuel system icing inhibitor.
With updated policy stemming from the Clean Air Act, modern ground vehicles use DEF in the catalytic converter to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions, a major pollutant. In 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandated that diesel-consuming light-duty vehicles manufactured after 2014 use DEF.
As public airports update their ground equipment, the fluid has become a necessary component to keep on airport grounds. But that introduces the risk of inadvertent mixing of a fluid.
Fuel system icing inhibitors are infused into jet fuel to prevent it from freezing. But DEF crystallizes in jet fuel, possibly blocking the fuel line and eventually setting the engines ablaze.
Both are clear, colorless liquids that can be purchased in bulk, are transferred into milky white storage containers and are generally stored in the same area, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. In July 2019, the board published a memo briefing fuel providers on preventative measures.
In Opa-locka, a Fair Wind Air Charter-owned Dassault Falcon 900EX plane was the first of several to experience emergency returns after takeoff. Two of the plane’s three engines failed in the air and the third showed signs of failing. Pilots safely grounded the plane with that final engine, but others in the future may not be so lucky.
“It was as close to a crash as we ever would have wanted to get,” said Fair Wind owner and chief operating officer Alex Beringer.
Overdorf’s bill mandates labeling and training precautions and accountability.
Specifically, it would require public airport governing bodies to inventory DEF and take physical measures to secure fuel system icing inhibitor delivery vehicles. Additionally, they would need to designate where both liquids can be stored and create best practices and training for labeling and storage.
The Department of Transportation would approve each governing body’s plans by September 1. Airports would then implement the rules at the start of the new year and certify they are being followed annually.
On Monday, the House voted unanimously to send the measure to the Senate for its approval. Without an accompanying bill ready for the Senate floor, Sen. Ben Albritton has been seeking support to grab the bill from House messages.
The Wauchula Republican’s version (SB 1036) did not pass out of Senate committees.
Overdorf fears waiting another year to pass legislation could risk another, maybe deadly, incident. And the Representative has a personal stake in the matter — both his wife and daughter are flight attendants for Fair Wind.
And pilots’ experiences are affected with additional training and concerns to monitor in flight.
“We had a perfectly good airplane that was serviced with bad fuel,” Beringer said. “That’s kind of a nightmare scenario, because no matter how well your aircraft is maintained and how well pilots are prepared, this is something completely unexpected.”
Now, a normally benign fuel filter light can indicate an oncoming cascade of engine failures. Some pilots train to head toward airports when the indicator turns on.
The Falcon 900EX, which has been on the market since 1996, currently costs $10 million to $20 million used. Fixing the plane cost Fair Wind $1.8 million.
But Overdorf sees economic implications beyond individual owners.
“All of a sudden, if we get any kind of reputation of having planes fueled with wrong stuff in the state of Florida, it could certainly have a massive economic impact on us,” he said.
Still, the issue is a national problem, with the first incident in 2017 tracing back to Omaha, Nebraska. The fact that two of three incidents so far were based in Florida was likely the luck of the draw.
The Federal Aviation Administration has put in a request to the EPA to create an exemption for DEF requirements at airports. But with no ruling coming down the pipe so far, Beringer wants Florida to act first.
“Let’s have Florida lead in coming up with the first-in-the-nation legislation that at least forces the discussion of coming up with a mitigation plan with addressing the exposure risk, with isolating where the inventory is kept and having that trickle up through the airport operator all the way up to the Department of Transportation,” he said.
After input from American Airlines and a local consultant, the bill does not impact commercial airlines, which are fueled through a hydrant and do not take fuel system icing inhibitors, instead keeping fuel from freezing with a heated bladder.
“I’m trying to remind folks out there how serious this is and yet how simple the solution is,” Overdorf said.