Emergencies revealed by Exaro turn spotlight on fuel-loading policy of big airliners

By Keith Perry | 20 August 2012

“There is pressure on pilots by airlines to carry minimum fuel because it costs money to carry the extra weight” – Retired Boeing 747 pilot

Britain’s commercial pilots are complaining of increasing pressure from airline bosses to carry less fuel because lighter planes are cheaper to operate.

Safety chiefs at the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) say that a combination of weather and traffic – despite advanced navigation and sophisticated forecasting – can leave aircraft running low on fuel when reserves have been cut to the minimum amount possible.

Dave Reynolds, BALPA’s flight safety spokesman, told Exaro: “The very bad weather that we had in December caused pandemonium in the south-east of England. Aircraft were arriving and finding that they suddenly had nowhere to land because the airfield had closed or everybody else had gone there.”

His comments came as Exaro revealed over the weekend that three UK Boeing 747 passenger jets made emergency calls this year while flying over southern England because they were running out of fuel.

One of them was a Virgin Atlantic jumbo jet flying from Orlando in America to Gatwick, but diverted to Stansted because of severe winds.

Our disclosures coincide with an investigation launched last week by Spanish authorities into Ryanair over three low-fuel maydays in Spain.

There were 28 cases of UK passenger aircraft forced to declare low-fuel emergencies while flying to airports in the United Kingdom in the past two years, according to data compiled by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Exaro published an edited version of filings to the CAA on such emergencies.

Reynolds told Exaro: “We also have capacity issues in Britain. The CAA recently issued a notice to all airlines to say that when they are approaching UK airspace and told there is no delay, it actually means that there can be a delay of up to 20 minutes.

“This is something that non-UK operators have not managed to get their heads round. So you arrive from Japan, see there is no delay and you realise that you have eaten into your fuel a bit more than you would have liked to have done.

“Then you are told to go into a holding pattern for 15 minutes. But you cannot take up the hold for 15 minutes because you have not got any fuel left.”

Low-fuel emergencies are rare compared with the number of commercial flights in UK airspace.

Reynolds added: “Once you have lost your engines, you have basically lost power to the controls in a modern aircraft. It is pretty catastrophic if you run out of fuel.”

Flight commanders have the ultimate say on how much fuel to take on board. However, pilots who repeatedly take on extra fuel face uncomfortable questions from airline chiefs.

Reynolds said: “Although pilots have the absolute choice about whether to take extra fuel, increasingly operators will want to know why a Captain Smith is taking an extra 10 tonnes each time. Pilots are under the microscope, and an individual’s decision on his fuel uplift is scrutinised quite closely.

“A decade ago, it was a given that if a captain needed more fuel, he was the one with the operational experience and could have it. But now the ever increasing commercial pressure makes it harder.

“The board of an airline used to comprise pilots, but now they are increasingly from outside aviation… and their interest is, of course, the shareholders.

“The bottom line is cost. And the low-cost model is the one that everyone wants to follow. It is a difficult line to walk as a captain because you have the financial imperative of the airline to consider, but, at the same time, you are responsible for the safety of your passengers.”

A retired 747 pilot who regularly flew from Los Angeles to London said: “There is pressure on pilots by airlines to carry minimum fuel because it costs money to carry the extra weight, and that is quite significant over a year.

“The fuel burns of each aircraft are very carefully recorded over a very long time to get accuracy to enable the correct amounts of fuel to be loaded. There will always be the unexpected events, and that is why reserves are carried. The real poser is: what is a reasonable reserve?”


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