Aviation's Hidden Threat

Casual fuel contamination undermines the safety of aircraft and passengers

I feel there is a hidden threat to the safety of aviation; it appears to me that some FBOs and fuel suppliers like to live in the past when it comes to risk management. I just hope they realize that in doing so it brings a tremendous amount of risk upon their customers, the aircraft they operate, the passengers and crews and ultimately upon their own organizations.

I am not sure if they live by the adage that “we have always done it that way and have never had a problem.” Interestingly enough these are the exact same words uttered by people in the wake of some serious incidents; they just add one word at the end — “before.”

On the other end of the spectrum are those who do it right. I have been in the aviation industry for 34 years, and I have witnessed some superb examples of FBOs and fuel suppliers that have exceptional safety standards. One of those FBOs is Castle & Cooke Aviation at Paine Field in Everett, WA.

General manager Terry Wilcoxson has been in the business for decades, so I asked him about the old days and the practice of “free access” to the fuel farm. “The mailboxes were a dead giveaway,” Terry recalls. This matched my own memory of my first day on the job as line manager and seeing these mailboxes at the large airport fuel farm used by the three different branded FBOs on the field. They were the typical rural mail boxes you see along country roads. Some had the red flag up. But that wasn’t to signal the mailman that there was outgoing mail inside. No, that signaled the line personnel that they had received a load of fuel and the paperwork could be found inside the mailbox.

Free access meant that nobody from the FBO was conducting quality control (QC) checks and supervising the off-loading of the fuel. This sounds crazy given the industry standards and fire regulations that this practice violates today. However, I can tell you with certainty that some line personnel still meet the driver, take the paperwork, then walk away without checking the fuel (violation of ATA-103) or monitor the off-loading (violation of NFPA 407).

It is a recipe for disaster when you combine this practice with fuel suppliers who do not confirm that individual fuel delivery drivers are trained and certified in aviation fuel handling and do not require and confirm that only grade dedicated equipment is used to haul the fuel. This means that the truck and/or trailer are dedicated to hauling just avgas or jet fuel, not both and not other products. We don’t even like trucks that have been steamed and dried preferring full-time grade dedicated equipment.

The airline fuel quality control standard followed by the airlines, the U.S. government and the military titled ATA-103 requires the use of grade dedicated equipment. ATA-103 is the industry standard applying to how aviation fuel should be handled.



Educating FBOs on the importance of meeting or exceeding industry standards is incorporated into our annual onsite inspections of every branded location, our regional QC seminars and on our training Web site.

As a fuel supplier it is incumbent to invest in risk management practices and trained personnel. Some seem to be content to follow the practices of others in an effort to limit overhead costs. In fact carriers have recently expressed concern that many suppliers do not require grade dedicated equipment. This is a practice we adopted 10 years ago and believe it is vital to proper quality control practices.

Business 101 teaches us that responsible business conduct includes product quality, workplace health and safety, protection of the environment, protection of workers and compliance with laws and industry standards. The first order of business for a smart opposing attorney in a lawsuit against a fuel supplier or FBO in the wake of a loss would be to educate the jury of the existence of some very detailed industry standards that apply to aviation fuel manufacture, transfer, storage and delivery into aircraft.

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