A jet fuel shortage, spurred by an increase in demand from firefighting aircraft and supply chain issues, caused daylong delays and departure problems at the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport over the weekend.
On Sunday, five flights were delayed overnight until Monday, said Airport Director Brian Sprenger, while five flights had to take fuel stops because of the fuel crunch, which mostly affected departing flights.
The delays caused by the shortage on Sunday were being worked out Monday.
“We’re getting the planes out today and we’re in recovery mode,” Sprenger said. “We have longer lines in security but we’ve gotten fuel in and gotten planes out. That’s the good news. The more challenging news is that this shortage and supply chain issues just won’t go away in the country.”
Several issues caused the Sunday shortage. Overall, there’s been a spike in demand for jet fuel both by commercial airlines and from firefighting aircraft in Montana and the Pacific Northwest.
With the increase in demand, Montana refineries are trying to keep up, said Alan Olson, the executive director for the Montana Petroleum Association.
While Bozeman’s commercial airlines do source from outside the state, much of the jet fuel is purchased from the Phillips 66 Refinery in Billings and Calumet Refinery in Great Falls — the only two Montana refineries that produce jet fuel.
“The refineries are blending fuel as fast as they can,” Olson said. “There’s no issue that’s slowing down production at refineries.”
But even as refineries try to keep up, there’s not enough drivers to transport the fuel, Olson said.
The lack of truck drivers has also delayed airlines from sourcing jet fuel from out of the state too, Sprenger said.
Gov. Greg Gianforte announced a wildland fire emergency Wednesday as Montana continues to heat up and new flames spark.
As of July 14, 1,398 wildland fires had burned approximately 141,000 acres in Montana.
“Firefighting is definitely tapping resources,” Olson said.
At the same time, the Bozeman airport is busier than it’s ever been, exacerbating the local shortage.
“It’s the peak of summer — the peak on steroids,” Sprenger said.
In 2019, the airport saw more travelers than ever, with 1.57 million passengers that year. It was the 10th consecutive year the airport had beat its own records.
The airport is on track to exceed that number. This June, the airport saw 44,000 more passengers flying in and out of Bozeman than in June 2019.
The airport is estimating that July will see an increase of 135% to 140% of passenger numbers of July 2019.
With the record traffic stretching fuel supplies, Bozeman also has more “long-haul” flights than other Montana airports, which use more jet fuel.
Long-haul flights — flights that last longer than six or seven hours — have to refuel at the destination, as opposed to shorter flights that can make a round trip on one tank of jet fuel.
“The fuel itself is owned by the airlines, and they’re responsible for the purchase, storage and transport of the fuel,” Sprenger said “And also paying for entities to put the fuel into an aircraft. Each has its own inventory.”
Both private jets and general aviation draw from their own respective inventories of jet fuel and did not contribute to the shortage for the commercial airlines, Sprenger said.
While the airport has tenuously recovered from Sunday’s shortage, he said it’s still at the whim of the shortage and supply chain issues.
“There’s so much less cushion than in previous years that a sudden unexpected event can have a much greater impact than in past years,” he said. “We’re cautiously optimistic every day, but we know the supply will be tight through the end of summer.”
With more people flying in and out of Bozeman, and with the tenuous supply of fuel, Sprenger advises travelers to pack some patience and to come early.