Sustainability in the Air
Sustainability In The Air
How Truckee Tahoe Airport is transitioning towards its 100% SAF goal

How Truckee Tahoe Airport is transitioning towards its 100% SAF goal

In this episode, we talk to Robb Etnyre, General Manager at Truckee Tahoe Airport.

In this episode of our ‘Sustainability in the Air’ podcast, Robb Etnyre, General Manager of Truckee Tahoe Airport, speaks with SimpliFlying CEO Shashank Nigam, and shares how the airport has become the first in the world to fully transition to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). 

Located just north of Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, Truckee Tahoe Airport (KTRK) is a small but busy airport serving a district of around 50,000 residents. As a general aviation airport, KTRK handles approximately 35,000 aircraft operations annually. Its customers include major private aviation companies like NetJets, Surfair, Flexjet, Wheels Up and Solairus, as well as locally based operators. Despite its modest size, the airport has taken an outsized role in pioneering the adoption of low-carbon fuels.

Learn more about Truckee Tahoe Airport’s commitment to sustainability here.

Here are the key highlights of the conversation:

  • Truckee Tahoe Airport’s decision to transition to 100% SAF (4:16)

  • SAF blend, sourcing, and logistics at Truckee Tahoe Airport (8:13)

  • Emissions reduction and sustainability considerations (11:21)

  • Customer response to SAF transition and pricing strategies (13:25)

  • Role of private aviation in advancing sustainability (17:40)

  • Community engagement and governance at Truckee Tahoe Airport (19:35)

  • Challenges overcome during the SAF transition (20:45)

  • Rapid Fire! (28:00)

Keep reading for a quick overview of the episode.

Why Truckee Tahoe Airport’s ambitions matter

Driven by the impacts of climate change witnessed firsthand in the region, such as severe wildfires and smoke, KTRK decided to power 100% of their flights using SAF.

While most airports pursuing SAF have taken an incremental approach, gradually increasing the percentage of SAF used, KTRK decided to leapfrog to offering SAF-blends exclusively. Etnyre explains that several factors motivated this accelerated transition:

  1. The Truckee Tahoe region has directly witnessed the escalating impacts of climate change in recent years, most visibly through a string of severe wildfires that have blanketed the area in smoke. This has made global warming an urgent local concern.

  1. The airport has been engaged in ongoing conversations with public and private stakeholders in the region through a body called the Climate Transformation Alliance. This multi-sector group, which includes the airport, local governments, utilities, ski resorts and others, has been working to align the community on ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals. 

  1. KTRK analysed the carbon footprint of its own operations. It found that the vast majority of its emissions – around 500,000 gallons worth annually – came from jet fuel sales. This presented a clear opportunity for a major impact through a switch to SAF.

KTRK began its SAF journey by offering a modest 10% SAF blend alongside conventional jet fuel, with the aim of 100% SAF in the future. To enable the transition, the airport has invested time in educating stakeholders and promoting the concept of SAF, which was new to many.

5 key aspects of Truckee Tahoe Airport’s transition to clean fuel

1. SAF blend, sourcing and logistics

The SAF currently used at KTRK is a blended product consisting of 30% neat (unblended) SAF and 70% conventional jet fuel. The exact ratio varies between 26-35% neat SAF depending on availability, but averages around 30%. While up to a 50-50 blend is allowed under current fuel specifications, the 30/70 mix is typical of what is produced and sold in the California market at this stage, says Etnyre.

The airport sources its neat SAF from Neste, one of the world’s leading producers, which manufactures it at refineries in Singapore and Texas. The SAF is then shipped to a bulk terminal in the Bay Area of California, where a company called Newstar Energy blends it with conventional jet fuel to create the final product.

From there, the blended SAF is trucked to KTRK on a weekly basis. Etnyre notes that orchestrating these fuel deliveries was one of the trickiest aspects of making the SAF transition. As a small airport without pipeline access or large on-site storage, KTRK had to fine-tune the timing and logistics, right down to coordinating time slots for fuel pick-ups, to ensure a smooth supply. 

2. Emissions reduction and sustainability

The 30/70 SAF blend delivers a significant carbon benefit, reducing lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 23% compared to using regular jet fuel, says Etnyre. For context, KTRK pumps about 500,000 gallons of fuel annually. By switching this entire volume to 30% SAF, the airport is avoiding an estimated 1 million kilograms (over 2.2 million pounds) of CO2 emissions each year.

Etnyre emphasises, however, that realising meaningful carbon savings depends on the SAF being sustainably produced. Neste’s SAF, derived from used cooking oils and waste animal fats, meets robust sustainability criteria. KTRK carefully vetted the environmental attributes of the product, right down to examining the specific feedstocks and production pathways, before signing its offtake agreement.

3. Customer response and pricing

Etnyre characterises the customer response as generally positive, with most operators understanding the cost premium and embracing SAF as part of their own sustainability objectives. There was, however, some pushback from some price-sensitive customers, especially locally based small operators, he says. To bring them along, KTRK engaged in candid one-on-one conversations, walking through the rationale and exploring ways to cushion the impact. 

Making the leap to 100% SAF at KTRK did necessitate a price increase of around 20% over regular jet fuel. This is still notably less than the multi-fold premiums over jet fuel sometimes ascribed to SAF, says Etnyre. In fact, due to California’s currently elevated jet fuel prices, KTRK’s SAF blend is now priced competitively at $8 per gallon, undercutting jet fuel at comparable nearby airports.

Etnyre sees the fact that SAF has reached price parity with conventional fuel at KTRK as a watershed moment. He believes that the economics of low-carbon fuels are rapidly improving as scale grows – a trend he expects to continue.

4. Community engagement and governance

Etnyre sees a collaborative approach to civic partnership as essential to the airport’s social license to operate.

As an airport district under California law, KTRK is accountable to the approximately 50,000 residents living within its boundaries. The airport is overseen by a five-member publicly elected Board of Directors, each serving three-year terms, who represent the interests and values of the community.

To ensure alignment with its constituents, KTRK maintains open lines of communication and regularly seeks input from district residents. This happens both through formal channels like board meetings and informally via vehicles like KTRK’s participation in the Climate Transformation Alliance. Truckee Tahoe also conducts direct outreach, such as surveys, to understand the community’s priorities and concerns related to the airport’s operations and development.

5. A values-driven approach to sustainability

Etnyre believes that truly moving the needle on sustainability requires rethinking traditional business models and measures of success, and focusing instead on a values-driven approach.

Rather than focusing solely on short-term profits and gallons pumped, airports should strive to deliver long-term value to their communities and the environment, he argues. Of course, this may sometimes mean proactively absorbing costs or moderating margins in order to achieve a breakthrough like KTRK’s move to 100% SAF.

Airports can also spur adoption by bridging the price gap in a manner consistent with their role as public infrastructure. Not every facility has a governance model similar to KTRK, but all can think creatively about incentivising uptake and equitably sharing the costs of grid decarbonisation rather than placing the onus entirely on end users, says Etnyre.

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‘Sustainability in the Air’ is the world’s leading podcast dedicated to sustainable aviation. Through in-depth conversations with top aviation leaders, we break through the clutter and provide a clear roadmap for a net-zero future.

Sustainability in the Air
Sustainability In The Air
Every week, Shashank Nigam, the CEO of SimpliFlying, talks to airline, airport, travel and technology executives to help make sense of the many paths to net zero, for an industry that is one of the hardest to decarbonize.
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