Most travelers don't think about the complexities of what it takes to support aircraft operations at an airport, from wheels on the ground to gate turnaround to takeoff. In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, airport authorities continue to evaluate airport operations to help create a seamless passenger experience.

One critical piece often overlooked in these intricate operations is the process of refueling aircraft. Where the fuel comes from is a complex system, but for fueling operations, it starts with making sure enough fuel is available to support departing flights. Determining adequate fuel volume is unique to each airport, but one key parameter is planning for sufficient storage capacity at that airport. Airports are now starting to see pre-pandemic passenger numbers and have increased flight volume. This influx of passengers is causing many airports and airlines to evaluate whether they have adequate fuel storage capacity.

Local fuel storage capacity is essential as a safeguard to check that fuel is readily available during normal and peak flight operations. Having sufficient storage locally also helps airlines and fuel operations prepare for unplanned issues or maintenance and supply line vulnerabilities and events such as outages, maintenance and inconsistent delivery cycles.

With the completion of three 1-million-gallon above ground jet fuel storage tanks, San Diego International Airport (SAN) now has five storage tanks, taking it from having less than two days of volume on hand to over six days on hand. This additional storage allows SAN to have sufficient fuel readily available to get through peak seasons and also the flexibility to perform regular maintenance and upkeep on the tanks and facility.

SAN Fuel Co., an airline consortium chaired by Southwest Airlines, owns and operates the fuel system and storage facilities at SAN. Scott Carrington, fuel category manager at Southwest Airlines, knows too well these challenges as well as the benefits with fuel supply and storage. He answers a few questions about such work:

How is an adequate or appropriate storage capacity determined for an airport?

“There are many factors to consider when determining capacity upgrades for an airport. We have to factor in current and forecasted demand for the airport in peak and average demand. Upstream fuel logistics also plays a significant role. We must consider how often fuel can be delivered to the airport and the buffer time needed for various fuel quality checkpoints.”

When did you realize the need for additional storage tanks and how did you decide to act?

“Serious conversations began just before 2010, when passenger demand/traffic began to increase substantially. It soon became evident that there was insufficient tank capacity to keep up with the forecasted growth. Southwest, with support from American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, spearheaded early discussions with SAN on the potential formation of a fuel consortium to address the looming supply constraints. Through several years of negotiations, the airlines and SAN finalized a long-term lease agreement in March 2020. This enabled the formation of the LLC and subsequent funding for the fuel tank expansion at SAN.”

What key advantages or benefits has the new storage capacity brought to SAN fueling operations?

“Having increased storage at the airport gives us flexibility and protection against several factors outside our control — benefits such as upstream logistics challenges with fuel supply and the ability to take tanks out of service for scheduled and preventive maintenance. This is a luxury we simply didn’t have before. Again, the key word here is buffer time. Before the expansion, if something occurred that impacted supply we quickly had to go into fuel conservation mode, which comes at a high cost to airlines. The increased buffer allows more time to strategize and troubleshoot any issues without impacting the operation.”

Airports and airlines face unique challenges with fuel storage to maintain operations and continually meet passenger expectations. Having on-site storage capacity at the airport is a solution that can help airports and airlines stabilize in the fueling process and prepare for the unknowns that can occur from supply challenges or other factors outside of the facility’s control.


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Tyler Curry is a project manager at Burns & McDonnell. With over a decade of experience, he has worked on a wide variety of projects in the aviation industry, helping clients overcome commercial fueling and aviation challenges.