Pilots Complain That Cash-Strapped Airlines Are Skimping On Fuel

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]
(Photo: Getty)

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  1. APFPilot says:

    FWIW its not an FAA Database, asars is run and maintained by NASA. This story is true though. Most pilots get shit if they decide to take more fuel than they have been planned to take Just like in health insurance those who actually have their ass and career on the line are given the least amount of say.

  2. DogTown says:

    The pilot said of the airline management, “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.”

    Airline management that uses this kind body count, trade-off, mentality has already figured out the difference between fuel savings costs and what the payouts would be for dead passengers after a bad shortage of fuel incident.

  3. ptrix says:

    I’m not an American, so my first question regarding this issue is whether or not this problem is limited to cash-strapped US-based airlines, or if it’s more widespread among airlines from other parts of the world. (is there a list?)

  4. skitzogreg says:

    Pardon me, but does this scare anyone else? I don’t know if I feel all that well about my airline only carrying the “minimum” amount of fuel. To me, that’s like guessing how many miles your car will get with the fuel light on.

  5. bohemian says:

    @skitzogreg: It has become the daily reminder of why I don’t want to fly anymore.

  6. dragonfire81 says:

    Thank god I don’t fly. Airlines are getting more crooked.

    This isn’t hoarding profits it’s gambling with HUMAN LIVES. Despicable.

  7. Yep…one of the many reasons that I drive.

  8. Yep…this is one of the many reasons that I drive.

  9. overbysara says:

    uuuhh… shit.

  10. jamesdenver says:

    @skitzogreg:

    No – it doesn’t scare me. The minimum amount of fuel by regs is sufficient fuel to get to your destination, (or your alternate airport,) plus another hour or something. (Been a while since my private pilot lessons.)

    And even if a plane does run out of fuel, (which yes would scare me if on board) they can still make a safe landing – even in the middle of the Atlantic as shown by Air Transat 236 in 2004.

    I think its just sensational journalism. If a plane lands because of fuel starvation here in the states there’s egg on my face – but it just won’t happen.

  11. StevieD says:

    What is the definition of “dangerously low fuel”?

    Seriously, is two hours of flight time “dangerously low”?

    Is one hour of flight time “dangerously low”?

    Is it insufficient quantity to travel to the major backup airport?

    Or is Engine #2 just quit and #1 is sputtering?

    I would really like to know the standard.

    BTW, I flew from LA to Dallas many years ago and we had to circle because of weather issues. Pilot announced there was no problem because we had 3 hour fuel reserve.

  12. jamesdenver says:

    oops Air Transat 236 was in ’01

    Also if there IS a maintenance issue to skimp on I’d WANT it to be fuel. Unlike jack screws that caused Alaska Air’s crash, or Valujet’s oxygen canisters – fuel is straightforward and simple fix: If you’re low on fuel you land.

  13. lostsynapse says:

    Yawn…Wake me up when they start instructing the pilots to cut the engines 100 miles away from the destination and glide in for the landing.

  14. Snaptastic says:

    Unfortunately, it seems to be the trend that is going to continue like the pilots say–up until there is a huge accident.

    I’m an air traffic controller, and I can admit that I do not have any plans to fly until the FAA and airlines get their shit straightened out. …not that I can really afford to–the FAA introduced the “B” scale for new controllers where we are only getting paid 34k a year (plus locality) until we get trained/certified in a certain number of positions. Old controllers are retiring because they are pissed, new controllers are leaving because they can’t feed their families on this (much less be willing to go through that stress), so they are bailing too.

    The skies aren’t getting any safer anytime soon unless a large number of people pull their heads out of their asses…which I wouldn’t be willing to hold my breath for.

  15. tripdog says:

    The only time you can have too much fuel in an airplane is when it is on fire.

    Seriously, as a professional pilot, we can land short of destination if necessary….so nobody is going to die. The big issue is that fuel decisions are the ultimate responsibility of the captain and he should not be under any influence outside of the flight department in making that decision.

    Would you trust the management teams that habitually use bankruptcy as a financial planning tool over a pilot that has the single responsibility of passenger safety?

  16. ageshin says:

    Maby filling the airplane with hydrogine would save fuel by making the plane lighter, don’t you know

  17. matto says:

    Do passenger jets dump excess fuel before landing, or are they like cars, and just ‘fill up’ when its needed?

  18. faust1200 says:

    @matto: Typically planes only jettison fuel if at that time they are too heavy to make an emergency landing. (i.e. right after takeoff) It is not commonplace. The amount of fuel put into planes is based projected fly time and factors in the weather, winds and weather at the alternate airport, basically.

  19. shepd says:

    Some cases of planes that have made forced landings from fuel starvation:

    (all survivors)
    [en.wikipedia.org]

    (85 injuries, 73 fatalities, 85 survivors)
    [en.wikipedia.org]

    (all survivors)
    [en.wikipedia.org]

    (some injuries)
    [en.wikipedia.org]

    (Injuries 37, Fatalities 23, Survivors 40)
    [en.wikipedia.org]

    (Injuries 41, Fatalities 13, Survivors 41)
    [en.wikipedia.org]

    2 out of 6 ain’t half bad. It’s two thirds bad. ;-)

  20. LUV2CattleCall says:

    Just build a SkyPrius and be done with it…

  21. I guarantee when they “reduce the weight of the plane” it will result in more lost luggage.

  22. ccfr8er says:

    This article fails to explain FAA fuel requirements: Airliners must carry enough fuel to get to their destination, plus fly to their “alternate” (another airport, usually with better weather) and then continue on for :45 minutes. This is a legal minimum. Normally there is also fuel beyond this amount, referred to as “contingency” fuel. The airlines rrecognize that it “costs fuel to carry fuel” and try to minimize contingency fuel. By law, the Captain and the Dispatcher must agree on the fuel load for each flight segment. I have never had a reasonable request for more contingency fuel refused.

  23. ccfr8er says:

    Shepd:
    Make note, that only one of the six examples was a US carrier. Crashes happen, but the safety record of US airlines is nothing short of astonishing.

  24. ywgflyer says:

    @jamesdenver:

    It’s fuel to destination (and an approach), plus fuel to destination (and an approach there, too), plus 45mins at normal cruise speed. At least that’s what it is in Canada…the States is probably very similar, if not the same.

    As for my opinion on this…I really, really don’t think that any crew member would ever go below that minimum, since it would result in some pretty messy (legally messy, mind you) results if they were found out…and besides that, it’s dangerous anyways. What I think the cutbacks have to do with is extra fuel above and beyond this minimum (which is pretty generous as it is).

    I know Southwest saves fuel by taxiing on one engine a lot. Doesn’t save a lot per flight (few gallons, maybe), but over the fleet over a year, it saves a LOT.

  25. dragon:ONE says:

    @lostsynapse: Ever play Flight Simulator X? If so, play Limited Options. Both engines fail about 90 miles from an airport at some island, or 60 miles to a closer airport with a shorter runway. 155 people on board. You’re the captain.

  26. ywgflyer says:

    @Dakota Courtois:

    Been there, done that. And it wasn’t a simulator (or a jet, either…Piper Cherokee) >_<

  27. Aristotles says:

    just great, while they are jacking prices up for “Fuel Costs” we are getting slugged when they are skimping on fuel… I feel just great :)

  28. Kopiok says:

    My father is an air traffic controller, and he’s complained more than once that airlines are skimping on the fuel. If he ever has to delay or reroute a plane, they are flying around with low fuel and then he has to deal with a lot of planes that NEED TO LAND.

  29. matto says:

    @ywgflyer: Both engines failed? On your Piper Cherokee? I bet the 155 people on board were quite alarmed!

  30. packetscan says:

    It’s a sad day for business and more so the people in this country,

  31. ywgflyer says:

    @matto:

    Haha. Funny.

  32. ThunderRoad says:

    When has management decisions ever been good in the face of technical evidence? Oh yea, Challenger, Columbia, Apollo 13, Apollo 1 ….

  33. Wormfather says:

    @Snaptastic: Nice comment, you need to send in a confessions tip to the the people here at consumerist…I’d definitly read and I’m sure it’d be on the front page of digg in 5 minutes.

  34. Mr. Gunn says:

    Kopiok: So they’re not actually sneakily skipping the line by falsely claiming to be low on fuel?