Are pilots really cutting back on fuel? Is my airplane going to run out?


We wrote about a story originating at MSNBC earlier last week claiming that pilots were being forced to cut corners to conserve costs on fuel. More than a few people were obviously concerned — contributor Cheryl writes:

That is a troublesome report at best and a very scary one at worst. What are the airlines waiting for a crash caused by not enough fuel on board when they are put in a holding pattern or can’t land either the airport they were planning to and can’t land at the nearest one either and then crashes. The FFA needs to get off it’s butt and make them do what is right for the public’s safetly. Human lives are priceless. All the more reason to drive if you have the time…and it is still cheaper than flying any more even at 4.00 a gallon.”

Since the article’s publication, however, several pilots have stepped in to comment. Our own Kent Wien, a pilot who writes our Cockpit Chronicles feature commented:

It might vary somewhat from airline to airline, but I’ve never run into a situation where we weren’t allowed to put on extra fuel if we felt we needed it. I’ve had two flights divert for fuel in the past 15 years, but that was after holding for nearly an hour in one case. We always land with at least an hours worth of fuel on board on clear days and average two to three hours on days with adverse weather.

Additionally, Patrick Smith over at his Ask the Pilot blog writes:

The regulations get complicated, particularly on international routes, but a good place to start is with the U.S. domestic rule: You cannot take off without enough fuel to reach your intended destination, then proceed to the most distant of any required alternative airport (one or more might have to be designated, in accordance with forecast weather minimums), plus maintain a 45-minute cushion on top of that.

Fly to your destination; fly to your alternative; and fly for an additional 45 minutes. You cannot — cannot — depart with less. Trust me, no airline that wants to remain in business asks its crews to do so. And if it did, no captain who wants to keep his or her license would agree. Payload permitting, however, you are welcome to depart with more than is legally needed. A fatter margin gives you greater flexibility, or holding time, in the event of unexpected delays. It’s this above-and-beyond fuel that airlines are cutting back on, not regulatory fuel.”

So take a deep breath and relax. Depots like MSNBC are excellent at stirring up trouble, generating hits and causing a controversy — it’s what makes them money. In this case, however, there’s no real reason to get worked up.