As oil price rises, pilots’ group accuses airline of putting profits before passenger safety
By Keith Perry and Susan Cooke | 10 September 2012
“There is one major airline that we know that gives financial bonuses if you use less fuel”
– Nico Voorbach, president, European Cockpit Association
Pilots at a major European airline are being offered bonuses to encourage them to minimise how much fuel they carry.
Exaro can reveal that shocking evidence of the practice is to be passed to the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which regulates airlines. It says that it will examine the claims.
Complaints about the bonuses – aimed at giving pilots an incentive to carry as little fuel as legally possible – were first received by the European Cockpit Association (ECA), which represents more than 38,000 European pilots from national associations in 37 countries.
The association, whose members include the British Airline Pilots Association, accused the operator of putting profits before passenger safety.
The development comes amid mounting concerns about airlines putting increasing pressure on pilots to load less fuel to make planes lighter and more economic to run.
The ECA told Exaro that it will pass the complaints to the EASA. It did not name the airline to Exaro, only describing it as a “major airline in southern Europe”.
Dominique Fouda, EASA spokesman on safety issues, told Exaro: “Passenger safety should always come first, always ahead of any other consideration,” adding, “We shall carefully review the concerns of ECA and take the necessary action to ensure safety always prevails.”
An Exaro investigation revealed three weeks ago how two Virgin Atlantic passenger jets were forced to issue emergency alerts to air-traffic control this year on the same day because they were running low on fuel.
The crew from the two Boeing 747s issued ‘pan’ alerts, requesting priority landing after being diverted to Stansted from Gatwick because of strong winds.
The disclosures came after Spanish authorities began investigating low-fuel maydays declared by three Ryanair planes one day in July.
Some pilots warned that airlines are operating on very narrow margins as they seek to cut operating costs in the face of high oil prices.
The ECA said that the problem is bigger in Europe than America because of the instability of the euro. The association, which represents pilots at the European Union, said that a weak euro pushes the price of aviation fuel up further because it is traded in dollars.
Nico Voorbach, ECA president and himself a commercial pilot, told Exaro: “We are concerned that decisions are not always based upon safety issues, but sometimes commercial issues. This means that some airlines are bending corners that should not be bent.
“There is one major airline that we know gives financial bonuses if you use less fuel. You see it more and more, and it is because of the economic situation that we have in Europe at the moment.
“We get more pilots telling us about their concerns about the pressure they feel on their decisions on safety issues. We shall bring those concerns to the authorities, such as the European Aviation Safety Agency.”
“Legislation states that, when you land, you have to have half an hour of fuel. That is the minimum, and as soon as you are below it, it can become unsafe.”
The ECA is calling on European governments to impose tighter oversight on airlines to curb the pressures on staff to adopt unsafe practices.
It is also liaising with pilots’ unions to gather information about examples of pressure on flight crew to minimise the fuel loaded, and this has already revealed a range of other practices.