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)