Continental Airlines Using "Fuel Emergencies" To Skip Ahead Of Other Airlines At Newark?

There’s evidence that Continental Airlines might be engaged in some shady manipulation of air traffic controllers by creating “fuel emergencies” in order to skip ahead of other airlines and land quicker at Newark, says the Wall Street Journal. So-called “fuel emergencies” aren’t as scary as they sound– planes that are getting close to the minimum amount of fuel required to remain in the air can call into the tower and get “expedited handling,” and skip the line. There’s no real danger to passengers.

“The Transportation Department’s inspector general released a document Wednesday showing that the number of such events involving Continental planes jumped from 19 in 2005 to 42 in 2006 to 96 in 2007,” the paper said.

Internal Continental memos show that management was encouraging pilots to skip refueling stops:

None of the flights examined in the report landed with less than the minimum quantity of reserve fuel mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. But the report cites two internal Continental memos, in February and October of last year, urging pilots to reduce refueling stops when possible.

In a statement stressing that “safety is our top priority,” Continental said it “doesn’t cut corners on ensuring aircraft have enough fuel. We put on ample fuel at the start of each flight, and there is a significant reserve.”

By declaring a fuel emergency or telling controllers they have “minimum fuel” aboard, pilots get expedited handling from traffic controllers. The FAA is working to clarify when pilots should resort to those phrases.

Though it sounds dangerous, the real losers are the passengers on other airlines that don’t pull this crap.

As early as August 2006, according to the report, there were suspicions in a local FAA office that Continental pilots were using fuel issues as a “flight-planning tool” to avoid going to an alternate airport. Continental has about 70% of the traffic at the Newark airport, and it accounted for 65% of the overall fuel events last year.

Even if such incidents pose no direct safety threat to passengers, the report concludes, they create “a burden on the air traffic system and an extra distraction for controllers” in a busy region.

Continental’s Low-Fuel Claims Rise [WSJ]
(Photo:Meghann Marco)


Edit Your Comment

  1. henwy says:

    I don’t get it. If they account for 70% of the traffic and only 65% of the incidents…aren’t they doing it less than you would expect?

  2. ConorRyan says:

    New Jersey has some of the cheapest gas in the nation. If I was a big airline that doesn’t want to pay a lot of money for gas, I’d get it wherever is cheapest. Newark Liberty International is literally next door and across the street from major oil refineries, so gas is probably a whole lot cheaper there.

  3. arcman001 says:

    The real question though should be: why are companies doing this? Greed might be one answer (high oil prices seems another). But what about the possibility that our air traffic control (ATC) system is antiquated? Fed-ex runs ATC their own way (they tend to use airports at night when passenger traffic ceases)…with far more computer automation, cramming in far more flights than passenger systems. Cramming planes in there by using computers? Sound scary? Dangerous even? Fedex has a comparable safety record to normal ATC, despite being far more efficient. If the FAA adopted a system like this, passengers would save time and airlines would save $$. If only the FAA could comprehend that human error just as dangerous (if not more so) than than computer error…

  4. ThunderRoad says:

    Well, if they fly with less fuel, they are lighter too. Put on the minimum and then someone at ATC tells them to circle once or twice and they are suddenly in reserve. Should they fly with more? Probably, but with fuel being what it is, I can see having a few percentage points off your costs for flying with half a tank of gas.

    Of course, that doesn’t make it right, but I can see some pencil-pusher coming up with this idea.

  5. MayorBee says:

    “Continental has about 70% of the traffic at the Newark airport, and it accounted for 65% of the overall fuel events last year.”

    So what they’re really saying is that 30% of the traffic accounted for 35% of the fuel events. It would seem that Continental is doing a better job at preventing “fuel events” than the other companies at Newark.

  6. ClayS says:

    Continental has a huge presence at EWR, so I’m not surprised that the airport is showing some favoritism. If you told me the same was being done for Delta in Atlanta, I wouldn’t be surprised.

  7. thewriteguy says:

    Oh for hell’s sake — let’s just declare the entire concept of airline travel in America an economic failure, and shut it all down.

  8. LJKelley says:

    I think the only thing that should be investigated is the Memos.

    Oddly enough it seems you weren’t bright enough to figure out that if 70% of traffic is Continental but only 65% of expidited landings are them, then I hardly am to believe they are playing the system. Obviously other airlines or another airline is using more expidited landings due to fuel than Continental.

    And really 96 flights… oh boy. Most flights don’t refuel halfway unless your flying to Australia. And delays have gotten steadily worse in 2005 and yes they probably do fill up less to save money and weight. Don’t we all do creative things to save money on gas or increase MPG?

  9. Oh, sure, they get to skip ahead of the line by declaring a “fuel emergency.” But when there’s a line for the bathroom and I yell that I have a “pee emergency,” everyone just looks at me funny and I have to still wait as long.

  10. cascascas says:

    As a frequent traveller on CO out of Newark, I say more power to ’em!

  11. annelise13 says:

    Okay, someone help me do the math here. They account for 70% of all flights there, and for 65% of the claims. Doesn’t that seem about par to anyone else?

    We’re also apparently talking about 96 “events” in all of last year. How many thousands of flights does Continental land in Newark on a yearly basis?

    I’m not saying they are completely innocent, I can totally see why the airline would be encouraging fuel efficiency possibly to an extreme, but I feel like this is mountain out of molehill.

  12. bloodhound96 says:

    This is taking advantage of the rules. The fuel emergency rules should only be used for exactly that. What happens when every airline starts doing this? Then you’ve got 20 airplanes in line in low fuel, and no way to expedite every single one, and somebody runs out of fuel. This is a disaster waiting to happen. The FAA should come down on any continental pilots and/or policy makers engaging in purposeful fuel emergencies.

  13. britne says:

    “Oddly enough it seems you weren’t bright enough to figure out that if 70% of traffic is Continental but only 65% of expidited landings are them, then I hardly am to believe they are playing the system.”

    my thoughts exactly. i came to comment just to point that out, but you beat me to it.

  14. Nighthawke says:

    When they make that “Low Fuel” call to the tower, the ripple factor kicks in, causing delays for other aircraft. This places them in danger of running low on fuel too. So on and so forth, increasing the workload on the ATC’s and tower crews, increasing the chances of mistakes being made.

  15. MissPeacock says:

    @arcman001: I think they probably do comprehend this, but their unions simply refuse to cave in because it would mean more automation and less need for physical ATCs.

  16. Coles_Law says:

    I hope this investigation is based on something other than the data at Newark. Others have said it, but an airline accounting for 70% of the traffic at Newark, other factors being equal, would have about 70% of the fuel emergencies.

  17. TechnoDestructo says:


    That would be great if we hadn’t fucked all alternatives.

  18. ywgflyer says:

    Not only is that shady, but it’s also illegal – – everyone in the ATC system is treated ‘equally’ (except dignitaries’ flights, medevacs, and the like)…calling a min fuel advisory just to skip ahead and stay on time is pretty bad. Hell, these guys are IFR…fuel requirements are:

    – fuel to destination, and for an approach AND missed approach (go-around)

    – fuel to get to alternate (for Newark, that’s probably Boston, as choosing LGA or JFK is a bit too close to get around weather-caused diversion reasons), AND to complete an approach there, too

    – fuel for 45mins flying time at cruise speed

    – most airlines will carry a contingency reserve of 3-5% of ‘trip’ fuel (point A to B) as well

    – plus any fuel the captain decides he wants to take along (“hip pocket” fuel)

    …So, that raises a good question: Why, with all these requirements (the first three of which are required of ALL aircraft under an IFR flight plan) is CO regularly declaring minimum fuel? Bad flight planning/dispatch? If they want to claim that it’s a lot of legit fuel ’emergencies’ (it’s not really an emergency, just an advisory that you can’t accept delays), they’ll have to say that’s what it is..because they shouldn’t even be coming close to tickling their 45min reserve or contingency fuel.

    …yeah, that was a little long-winded, but I think it shows how absurd it is to be continually declaring advisories that shouldn’t be necessary.

  19. jamesmusik says:

    “Continental has about 70% of the traffic at the Newark airport, and it accounted for 65% of the overall fuel events last year.” Sounds like they’re doing it even less than other airlines to me.

  20. Yeah – I get why this is bad in theory…

    But since Continental is far and away the best large American carrier in all other respects, I’m not going to lose any sleep over it and I’m going to continue to enjoy my OnePass miles.

  21. spinachdip says:

    @jamesmusik: It’s not entirely clear from the article, but it seems 65% figure is for all fuel events, including but not limited to fuel events that shouldn’t have been fuel events. They don’t seem to have a percentage on fuel events where the plane landed with more than minimumfuel.

  22. tofoomeister says:


    New Jersey has some of the cheapest gas in the nation…


    First, gasoline (used to power cars and other vehicles) is cheaper in NJ because NJ gas stations pay less insurance than other states. This is because NJ doesn’t let John Q. Public fill up his own gas tank.

    Secondly, jets don’t run on gasoline, they run on jet fuel, which is not the same as gasoline.

    Finally, what does your post have to do with the article? RTFA: Continental has increasingly been using “fuel emergencies” to jump the line, not to ensure getting cheaper “gas”.

  23. @MayorBee: Thank you. That’s exactly what I was thinking.

    By the way, folks. Jets don’t run on “gas”. Jet fuel is much different than gasoline, and very similar to plain old kerosene; if you tried to run a turbine on gasoline, it would explode into a lot of little pieces!

  24. huadpe says:

    @tofoomeister: Well, jet fuel is kinda the same as gasoline, but really really high quality gasoline. You could run a car on jet fuel no problem, in fact, it would run better than usual. But you can’t run a jet on car fuel.

  25. puddleglum411 says:

    96 “events” in a year? According to their website press info, they do 2,900 flights a day. Somehow, I’m having trouble getting indigant about this.

    That being said, shame on them if they’re doing it on purpose.

  26. tofoomeister says:


    Yes, both gasoline and jet fuel are both petroleum derivatives. However, the economics of purchasing jet fuel have nothing to do with why gasoline is cheap in NJ.

    Sorry if I sounded like an Internet tough guy. Must be that Jersey pride kicking in.

  27. StevieD says:

    How low is low enough to call an emergency? Three hours of flight time? An hour of flight time? Not enough fuel to make it to JFK? Engine #1 just shut down and #2 is sputtering?

  28. they have 70% of the newark traffic, and account for 65% of the newark fuel emergencies… unless i’m reading the article wrong or misinterpreting the data, aren’t those 2 numbers in line with each other?
    isn’t that expected that if they fly 70% of the newark flights, they account for about 70% of the newark fuel emergencies, 70% of the delays leaving newark, and 70% of the wages of newark airport employees?

  29. nygenxer says:

    I read about this back in December (I think).

    It wasn’t just Continental – the numbers of declared fuel priority landings was way up all over.

    Ah, deregulation.

    What better place to test deregulation than in the airline industry where you’re six miles up in the air in a million pound explosive missile flying in excess of 500 miles an hour!

  30. @StevieD: i doubt it’s an ’emergency’ situation, probably more like an hour or 2 of flight time.

  31. ColoradoShark says:

    @MayorBee: Thanks from me too for pointing out they are doing a better job than the other average companies.

    Also 96 incidents a year is about one every four days. That isn’t going to really help their schedule.

  32. LUV2CattleCall says:

    “if you tried to run a turbine on gasoline, it would explode into a lot of little pieces!”

    Wow…talk about exaggeration! A turbine would run just fine on pretty much whatever the hell petrochemical you fed it. Sure, you may need a software tweak, and sure, it will probably fail sooner due to deposit build up, etc, but it won’t explode into a million pieces. As an example, there are freight trains that use GE Turbines running on diesel to generate electricity for the traction motors. Also, there are cruise ships that use Rolls-Royce turbines adapted from the Trent aviation engines which run on bunker fuel – which is pretty much the lowest grade of fuel out there.

  33. OwenCatherwood says:

    @arcman001: A modern ATC system only helps to get more planes going to different destinations through the same point in space. You still need standard 3-5 mile separation on final until the FAA decides to wave wake turbulence separation and say it is safe to put two landing aircraft on the same runway at the same time.

  34. BStu says:

    That 70% vs. 65% is obviously jumping out to a lot of people. I wonder why the reporter didn’t focus more on that statistic, given that it seems to completely negate his argument for targeting Continental. There may still be a story here, and Continental is clearly a part of it given the rise in feul events over the last few years. But if they are making up a smaller percentage of fuel events than they are overall traffic, I fail to see how its justified to focus the entire article on Continental.

  35. NBzero says:

    Not sure we have enough details here to be sure this is what it sounds like.

    “Minimum Fuel” means that your fuel situation is such that any further delays will place you in a “fuel emergency.” Declaring minimum fuel does NOT give any ATC handling priority.

    An emergency declared because of low fuel would mean that you ARE going to land with less than the mentioned “federally mandated fuel reserve.”

    Declaring an emergency (regardless of reason) will garner a lot more FAA attention than you would want if you were doing it over and over again. It wouldn’t take long for the Feds to start asking some serious questions if they saw more than a couple of these a year.

    I call shennanigans on this one.

  36. airhed13 says:

    Heh, that’s why I always fly Continental!

    (Well, ok, actually it’s b/c Continental owns CLE, my local hub, but now I’m even happier that I fly them.)

  37. facted says:

    I think this title is a little misleading. It would be one thing if they had plenty of fuel on board and declared a fuel emergency just to skip the line. Instead, they’re just putting less fuel on their plane and cutting the margins closer and are now just running into more “fuel emergencies”. One could argue that they could just put more fuel on the plane and that would be the end of it, but they’re not exactly gaming the system.

    Also, you have to consider that over the past few years fuel has become ridiculously expensive for airlines and any added weight adds to the cost of that particular flight. They’re just trying to skim of some fuel that they likely won’t need to try to get costs down. It sounds like they’re cutting the margin for error down a bit for sure, but they’re not exactly cheating other airlines if you ask me.

  38. BK88 says:

    @arcman001: FedEx Does not “run ATC their
    own way.” They simply schedule more efficiently. FedEX does not have
    any part of ATC. ATC is run by the Federal Government.

    They use the same navigation equipment as any other airline, which
    is a GPS-based Flight Management System. It’s UPS that is developing
    “computer” controlled approaches that maximize fuel effiency on descent
    and approach.

    OwenCatherwood is correct, until you get rid
    of wake turbulence (the “waves” of air that can flip airplanes)
    requirements, there will not be any more improvements in effiency.

    I just love it when people (arcman001) who think aviation is cool decide to spout off something they know nothing about.

  39. zgori says:

    It doesn’t sound to me like the fuel emergencies aren’t fake, but that they simply more common on account of airlines trying to reduce costs. In the past, I think it was common to take on some extra fuel beyond the minimum requirements for cruise, holding, go-around, diversion, etc. The idea being that it’s better for everyone if, in the event of a delay, the plane can circle for a while and still land at its destination airport rather than divert. Now, with pressure to cut costs, they sticking closer to the minimum requirements (as other have pointed out, carrying more fuel increases weight which increases fuel burn). And worrying less about, you know, actually getting their customers where they are going.

  40. OwenCatherwood says:

    The big deal from the WSJ article was that the number of fuel emergencies for COA more than doubled between 2006 (42) and 2007 (96), meaning that they did a far worse job of fuel planning, particularly on international flights.