Hoping to push the needle closer to "E," American Airlines is aggressively attempting to reduce the amount of fuel remaining on board when a plane lands.
But the cost-saving strategy is under fire from pilots who see their decision-making authority being undercut and experts concerned about the impact on passenger safety.
The controversy goes beyond American as other airlines keep a close watch or implement changes in fuel-loading policy. Commuter carriers that fly most of the nation's regional jets, the fastest-growing segment in the industry, warrant a particular focus, according to experts. The commuter airlines face the strongest pressures to curb operating costs, and their flight crews rank among the least-experienced professional pilots.
American has taken the spotlight as its management spars with the airline's pilots and dispatchers over who determines how much fuel a plane needs to reach its destination, a call traditionally made by the flight's captain.
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The dispute centers on tremendously sensitive issues for airlines and pilots: control, safety and money.
While no one is warning that the fuel-conservation effort could put commercial aircraft in danger of running out of fuel in midair, the issue is whether sophisticated databases designed to help the airline control one of its largest expenses should outweigh the judgment of American's front-line staff with years of experience. No computer program can reasonably take into account the variables and nuances that pilots and dispatchers process as they prepare for a flight, some experts say.
It's a balancing act. The more excess fuel that is carried in flight, the more fuel gets burned. While American's pilots are not arguing that the tanks should be topped off before every flight, there is an intense debate over how closely to number-crunch the amount of fuel needed to complete a flight, including the use of precious reserve fuel, which is calculated in minutes of flying time.
"We feel that we have been so scientifically precise about what we need on a given flight that we want the captains to trust us," American spokesman Tim Wagner said. "Too much extra fuel doesn't provide an extra margin of safety, but it does take money off our bottom line."
Federal Aviation Administration regulations mandate that a plane's captain and flight dispatcher have joint responsibility for determining how much fuel to load onto an aircraft, although the captain ultimately determines whether a plane can be safely flown.
But in a May 24 letter to pilots obtained by the Chicago Tribune, American flight operations chief Bart Roberts made it clear that pilots are expected to "accept the flight plan as fueled by the dispatcher."
Pilots who think they'll need more fuel must make their case in writing.
"This isn't a directive to not add fuel or to restrict the captain's authority," Wagner said. "We just want to hear from pilots if they feel the dispatcher has miscalculated or they flag something that we need to take a look at."
Union leaders claim that's intimidation, because the now-required paperwork, called a P-2 form, is tracked by American's management and could be used against the pilot if his or her job performance is ever called into question.
"It's being touted as a corporate efficiency program, but perhaps it has gone too far," said Dennis Tajer, an American pilot and spokesman for its pilots union, the Allied Pilots Association. "It has the ability to affect the margin of safety and reliability. That is our concern."
American planes are landing with enough fuel to fly an additional 93 minutes on average, airline officials said. The goal is to whittle the average down over the course of a year, they said. Extra fuel is always allocated during bad weather, they said, and to account for the probability that planes will be placed in holding patterns near congested airports, among other factors.
"In an excellent weather month, we've gotten down to around 88 (minutes)," but never below that on average, Wagner said.
American's policy to have a minimum of 65 minutes of fuel left at the end of a flight is well above the FAA requirement for a minimum of 45 minutes of fuel remaining on domestic arrivals and 30 minutes on international arrivals.
"The idea that you should never burn into your reserve fuel is a misperception," Wagner said. "It is there to be used if needed. But that said, we burn into our reserve fuel less than 0.2 percent of the time."
Passengers might wonder how the controversy affects them. Is there a chance their plane will exhaust its fuel supply?
"No, that's not going to happen," said US Airways Capt. James Ray, who is also a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilots union in the U.S. "But it is an inconvenience if a flight is diverted."
Aeronautics professor Les Westbrooks said the situation at American is troubling because it signals a further chipping away of the captain's authority, while the captain's responsibility for the safety of everyone on board hasn't changed.
"Everybody wants to tell the captain what to do, but if something goes wrong, it will be the captain who will lose his or her license," said Westbrooks, a retired Air Force and airline pilot who is an associate professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.
He disagreed with American's assessment regarding reserve fuel. "Reserve fuel should not be touched," he said. "It is there for reserve."