August 10, 2008

Into the Air Junior Birdmen


Here's yet one more way airlines are diddling with your comfort and your life in order to pinch the very last farthing from your fare:Pilots Say Airlines Are Cutting Fuel Levels Dangerously Low

Pilots are complaining that their airline bosses, desperate to cut costs, are forcing them to fly uncomfortably low on fuel.... In March, for example, an airline pilot told NASA he landed his regional jet with less fuel than required by FAA regulations.

"Looking back," he said, "I would have liked more gas yesterday." He also complained that his airline was "ranking" captains according to who landed with the least amount.
A month earlier, a Boeing 747 captain reported running low on fuel after meeting strong headwinds crossing the Atlantic en route to John F. Kennedy International Airport. He said he wanted to stop to add fuel but continued on to Kennedy after consulting his airline's operations manager, who told him there was adequate fuel aboard the jet.
When the plane arrived at Kennedy, the captain said it had so little fuel that had there been any delay in landing, "I would have had to declare a fuel emergency" - a term that tells air traffic controllers a plane needs immediate priority to land.

There's an old saw in flying that lists the three most useless things in aviation:

1) Air in the tank.
2) Runway behind.
3) Altitude above.

Number one's made the list. Short runways and low altitude cruising coming right up.

On the bright side, if you crash in a plane because it's out of gas you won't burn to death.

Posted by Vanderleun at August 10, 2008 1:33 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Yes it's true. My brother is a pilot for American, and they are all upset that MBA's are making flight safety decisions. Last month my son was flying from Boston to San Antonio with a plane change in Chicago. Unfortunately there was weather over the Great Lakes, so they had to fly around the storm. Even more unfortunately, they did not have enough fuel to fly around the storm, so they landed at Indianapolis to refuel. Sitting on the ramp waiting for an unscheduled fuel truck meant that everybody missed their connection... I am sure that somewhere on the business spreadsheets of the geniuses behind this decision is an "acceptable" number of people who miss their connections because of it. This will never get fixed until the airlines (all except Southwest) recognize they are in the SERVICE industry.

Posted by: Spike72 at August 10, 2008 3:53 AM

I am a captain at a major national airline and see this sort of thing daily. However, there is another side to the coin which we also ought to examine.

As we have been told repeatedly by now (and everyone who puts gas into a car knows), airline fuel costs have risen at an unprecedented rate. At the start of this year, oil was trading in the low $90's. Even given the recent pull back from the high $140s to the current $116-120 a barrel, that is still a roughly 20% increase in 8 months. How much have the costs in your business risen in that time? A year ago, fuel was trading in the mid-$70's. [Also, IMO, the recent pullback will be short-lived. Don't get used to what you're seeing today. We'll be buying $5-6 dollar gas before you know it and thinking back to the heady days when fuel "came down" to $3.80 a gallon.]

Each of us, as consumers, have seen this at our own gas pumps, and you, as airline passengers, have seen it in the stories regarding the airlines. Airline fares are going up; they're charging for things they used to give away for free; Nothing is what it once was.

However, what you're missing here is the obvious: As the gas that we put into our own cars has become more expensive, we have changed our driving habits. Low mileage SUVs are being dumped (often at a loss) in favor of fuel-efficient smaller cars. We're driving slower, trying to squeeze another mile or two per gallon out of that tank. Rather than just jumping into the car for every errand, we now think about stitching those errands together to make the best use of our gas money.

The airlines are no different here. For those who don't know, on most domestic flights, we rarely fill our tanks to capacity. An airplane only has a certain lifting capability, and it is better for us to lift pounds of people and cargo (who pay us) rather than lift pounds of fuel (which we have to buy). Obviously, we need to have enough fuel to get to our destination, but we don't want to carry more than an appropriate reserve.

Why is that?

This gets into aerodynamics and how planes work, but the short story is that it costs fuel to carry fuel. Load an extra 10,000# of fuel on my flight beyond what is needed, and I won't land at my destination with 10,000# more than I had otherwise planned on. I will land with 9900#. (I'm making these numbers up. They'll change from airplane-to-airplane, but the concept works across fleets.). So, I will have burned 100# for the priviledge of carrying it.

Believe me, Spike, airlines are intimately aware of the unhappiness that diversions cause our passengers. Also, from our side of the airline gate desk, missed connections are a giant problem too. If cost were no object (can you name one business where this is true?), we'd be carrying all kinds of extra fuel to alleviate these sorts of diversions. But we have to deal with the world as it is; not as we would like it to be.

Posted by: azlibertarian at August 10, 2008 9:29 AM

That's disturbing; I'd hate to see more incidents like this.

Posted by: Julie at August 10, 2008 9:38 AM

funny, I read this the same day:

the comment towards the end is the scary bit.

Posted by: pdwalker at August 10, 2008 9:40 AM

Nothing to burn? There's oil and lubricant, plus what dregs remain in the fuel tank. There's always dregs in the fuel tank, plus vapors in the fuel lines. You won't burn as long, but you will burn.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at August 10, 2008 11:19 AM

I hadn't thought of that. Thanks for the cheering up.

Posted by: vanderleun at August 10, 2008 6:27 PM

The "you won't burn comment" is more right than wrong. Several years ago An airline from Colombia?, Avianca Airlines 707, ran out of fuel and crashed near NYC. I studied the crash for an air safety college course. No doubt there was some fuel in some portion of one or more fuel tanks but there was no fire. That Avianca crash also provides a point to keep in mind about the media, eyewitness testimony in that even though there was no post-crash fire witness accounts were wildly divergent. Some eyewitnesses reported the 707 plunging out of the sky already engulfed in flames.

As a former pilot and aircraft mechanic my rule of thumb is to ignore 99.9% of aviation reports in the general media. The reporters and editors are so clueless about technical subjects they wouldn't blink if some witness told them the airliner stopped in mid-air and became invisible before traveling backwards. Aviation Week & Space Technology publications are very good about the subject, but skip Katie Couric and regular beat reporters. They keep saying "tarmac" at every opportunity without knowing how ridiculous they seem to people in the industry. Tarmac uttered by a non-Brit is like some Frasier Crane type discussing the trouble he had getting his golf clubs from the boot or bonnet of his car, whichever is the trunk. The proper term that people that work around aircraft use for the patch of concrete that's not a runway and not a taxiway, that portion from the airport terminal gate to the taxiway is "ramp", even if it's level ground. The people that throw your bags and re-fuel airliners call themselves "ramp rats."

Tarmac is a Brit word that is equivalent to asphalt in the US. It means the type of material, not the area of the airport environ.

Posted by: Scott M at August 11, 2008 2:01 AM