What’s the surest way to save money on rising fuel prices? Don’t use it! MSNBC has gathered pilot complaints from a database NASA maintains for the FAA, and they show that airlines are challenging pilots’ refueling decisions, urging them to carry only the minimum fuel required by FAA regulations in order to reduce the weight of the plane and improve mileage. Pilots, however, have the final say on the matter and some of them are upset that cost-cutting is a factor at all in such a crucial decision. One pilot wrote in his complaint, “It’s almost like a contest to see how far we can spread this company thin, and when an accident happens, we’ll start reintroducing the safety elements we once had.”
Continental Airlines, for example, issued two bulletins last year expressing concern over the number of refueling stops that some flights were making en route to Newark, N.J., one of which observed that “adding fuel indiscriminately without critical thinking ultimately reduces profit sharing and possibly pension funding.”
Airline spokespeople have cried foul at the idea that they’re doing anything unsafe, and MSNBC admits “the documents do not make it possible to paint a precise picture of pilots’ unease.”
The reports do not represent a valid statistical sample, for example, because they are voluntary and by definition incomplete. And they are redacted to conceal the identities of the pilots, making it impossible to verify individual statements. But NASA, which maintains the Aviation Safety and Reporting System, says it considers the database a reliable and conservative snapshot of events.
MSNBC reports that it’s been 18 years since an airplane crashed because it was out of fuel, and that was an Avianca Airlines flight from Bogota, Colombia to JFK in New York in 1990. But the complaining pilots have said that airlines are hewing deliberately close to FAA guidelines without regard for “the reality of the day,” and the resulting flight plans are technically safe but don’t leave enough room for the unexpected.
Following local news reports late last year that some airliners were arriving at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey with dangerously little fuel left in their tanks, Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the FAA, said: “We don’t have any indication right now that airlines are flying planes with less than the required amount of fuel.”
But Schricker said, “Management is juggling, and what they do by doing that is they decrease the margin of safety.”
As a result, said Russ Miller, an air traffic controller at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, aircraft now often sound minimum-fuel alerts while they are in holding patterns.
“Pilots claim airliners forced to fly with low fuel” [MSNBC]