Pilots forced to cut corners on safe fuel levels, networks say

To what extremes will airlines these days go to cut costs? Passengers might be alarmed to find out one of the more worrying answers uncovered in a major NBC and MSNBC.com investigation: Fly their planes knowingly on low fuel levels.

The networks have delved into a Federal Aviation Administration database of non-public safety complaints to unearth a significant amount of safety concerns raised by pilots themselves, who say airlines are forcing them to fly major commercial airlines with too little fuel.

The networks quote internal memos from Continental Airlines that appear to take pilots to task for making “indiscriminate” fuel stops en route to its hub at Newark Liberty International Airport, saying that they cut down on profit sharing and pension funding.

The Transportation Department last week released a report saying flights declaring minimum or emergency fuel levels are increasing for routes into Newark, based on a sample of 20 landings.

The FAA says all flights must have enough fuel to reach their destination plus their farthest alternate airport, and then must carry another 45 minutes’ worth in addition to that, the networks say.

The FAA also gives pilots final say in the amount of fuel they carry on their flights. But the networks’ report says that increasingly, the judgment of pilots is called into question if he/she raises concern about the amount of fuel designated for the flight in the flight plan

Says one captain quoted in the report: “I, as captain, have final authority on what I deem is a minimum safe fuel load for the flight or do I not.”

Read the investigation: It’s thorough and explains the extent of the concerns, and also includes excerpts of pilots’ complaints.

As Gadling’s resident cockpit expert, I’d be keen to read Kent’s take on all this, if not on the thrust of the networks’ investigation than in general on the role pilots have in setting fuel levels for flights and just what it means for a plane to be descending claiming minimum or emergency fuel levels.

As someone who has never been in the cockpit, I’m out of my league in these matters. Is this report something that should concern us?

What strange things have been found on planes?

Click the image to read the bizarre story…