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Creative Interpretation’ of Fuel Loading Rules Rampant, Pilots ClaimExtra fuel reserve for flying to

Mon, Jun 16, 2008 — David Evans

Articles

Airline pilots are being pressured by their companies to minimize the amount of fuel reserves they pump aboard for a flight, resulting in more declarations of an emergency when the exigencies of weather, heavy traffic, and other factors produce approach and landing delays or even diversions.

Some pilots believe that current company fuel saving initiatives could result in an accident. To be sure, there is the old quip that a pilot cannot carry too much fuel – except when the plane is on fire, But the tension between pilots’ desire for a greater fuel “cushion” against unforeseen contingencies and the airlines’ desire to minimize their fuel costs (through paring take-off weight) seem to have reached a tipping point.

The evidence for pressure on pilots and airline dispatchers comes from anonymous reports that these individuals, and air traffic controllers, have submitted to the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS). The ASRS database is maintained by the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) to assure independence from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

A request by this publication for all air carrier minimum fuel related incidents from 1 January to the present yielded 204 reports. There is one caveat, as explained by an official who maintains the ASRS database: “The reports are submitted voluntarily and are subject to self-reporting biases. Such incidents, in many cases, have not been corroborated by the FAA or NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board].” In other words, there could well be far more fuel-related problems, but the individuals affected chose not to report them.

Moreover, a reading of the reports indicates that the pressures put on pilots and dispatchers to execute the flying schedule with minimum fuel do not always result in reportable incidents (damage to airplane, near misses). Rather, the ASRS reports indicate a subtle loss of options, manipulation of data loaded into FMCs (Flight Management Computers), a tendency to optimistically anticipate good weather (in the face of known inclement weather or headwind forecasts), and lack of sound planning for diversions, among other things.

A December 2007 report from an airline captain is typical. He reported that he had diverted several times in recent months because the plane was not given enough fuel to withstand delays. The captain, whose name and airline are not disclosed in the report, blamed his latest diversion on the “unrealistic fueling policy of my [airline]. It is not consistent with the realities of the perpetually congested airspace system.”

The ASRS reports over 2006-2008 are too few, over too short a window of time, to portray a trend. It is not possible to tell if more airlines are getting unduly strict about fueling policies, but higher fuel prices and the voracious thirst of jet engines, and the disincentive to offload revenue generating passengers or cargo, would support the general notion that airlines have tightened up their fuel loading policies as an executive level cost-saving initiative.

ASRS accounts are only from American pilots, but the reports make one wonder about the incidence world-wide, as all airlines are struggling under high fuel costs.

What is known is that when the managers of the ASRS database detect a system wide problem from the anonymous reports they have received, an Alert Bulletin will be published to the FAA indicating a potential issue. One such bulletin was published 27 September 2005 under the heading “Company Fuel Policies Affecting Flight Safety” in which Linda Connell, ASRS director, informed the FAA:

“We feel you should be aware of the following: ASRS received a number of reports that describe incidents in which dispatchers and flight crews were allegedly pressured to conform to fuel loading policies that could have compromised flight safety.”

The Alert Bulletin contained a few ASRS reports, one of which, filed by a dispatcher for a regional airline, summed up the problem corroborated by the great volume of more recent 2006-2008 reports:

“Company fuel policy conflicts with FARs [Federal Aviation Regulations]. Aircraft dispatchers are belittled, humiliated, and intentionally embarrassed via monthly posting of fuel usage reports. The sole purpose of said reports is to force dispatchers to take and assume unnecessary risk via imposition of company fuel policy. [The airline] operates jet aircraft. Jets use more fuel than turboprops. FARs state we must consider known or forecast air traffic control/weather delays in addition to normal fuel required for each flight. Management is trying to impose restrictions on dispatchers. Company policy is in direct conflict with day to day operations.”

Whatever pressures are put on dispatchers translates into actions that cause pilots to take risks that are not in the interest of flight safety. There is a definite theme in the ASRS reports that squares with pilot postings in other forums: of pressures being placed on crews by not carrying reserve fuel. To be sure, not carrying fuel that may not be needed is the only available saving (i.e., fuel weight reduction) once cost indexes and tankering to high-cost fuel destinations are fully utilized.

The ASRS reports certainly provide a rich load of evidence that inappropriate pressures are being placed on flight crews to either carry less fuel, or force them to justify carrying extra fuel. Inciting pilots to make inroads into fuel reserves cannot be simply ignored, as some pilots in a shrinking industry will comply just to keep their jobs intact (from both a personal and company survival prospect). But, as one pilot noted in report to ASRS, “This new minimum fuel loading policy is short-sighted and dangerous.”

How so? From a selection of 2006-2009 ASRS reports cited below, one sees that dispatcher authority to short-change and override captains on the subject of fuel loads is endemic. This is leading to a stressing of pilots, air traffic control and other traffic. Inadequate fuel allowances for weather prediction inaccuracies, icing, de-icing, ground holds, diversions, aircraft unserviceabilities (MEL, or Minimum Equipment List outages), and en route failures can lead to compound and complex emergencies.

There have been nine accidents worldwide from fuel starvation since the year 2000; since the late 1940s, there have been over 65 fuel-starvation accidents.

The FAA requires airliners to carry enough fuel to:

  • Fly to the destination airport,

  • Fly to an alternate airport (where required) because of weather or other reasons,

  • Fly for 45 minutes once reaching the alternate.

In addition, most regulators require airliners to carry a contingency reserve of 10% of remaining flight fuel required (i.e., 110% of flight planned fuel usage). This little bit extra is supposed to cover the vagaries of flight-planning, forecast winds aloft, the need for anti-icing en route and ATC generated re-routing delays. As the flight nears its destination, this extra 10% can have been utilized, so it may legally become 10% of very little. The applicable regulations are FAR 121.639 – 121.647.

An FAA official maintains that the agency has reviewed ASRS reports and found them inconclusive.  “Our initial review did not identify any cases where there was a violation of regulations related to fuel,” the official said. “We did see cases where there was confusion about the meaning of the terms ‘minimum’ fuel and ‘emergency’ fuel. We issued information to operators, FAA inspectors and air traffic controllers to clarify the meaning and use of those terms.”

The official said actual data is being gathered at Newark International Airport. “Since February 15, the FAA has been monitoring Newark tower, listening to tower tapes and looking at actual fuel onboard at landing (at the gate),” he said. One would think spot inspections of many carriers at different airports would at least complement the Newark-specific data, where airlines know they are being checked.

As shown in the extracts below of ASRS reports, there are many ways to fudge and minimize fuel reserves, to include assuming zero drag on the airplane, or assuming that all will go well and a diversion will not be necessary. The FAA rules state that planning for an alternate airport is necessary only “where required.” Those two words provide ample “creative interpretation” to avoid carrying fuel for an alternate destination.

The problem here is that aviation safety is built on options, such as designing the airplane to avoid a single point of failure. Yet the same approach does not appear to be taken with fuel loading. Deleting the words “where required” from the FAA requirement would go a long way toward assuring pilots of adequate options.

Date: February 2008

Reporter: Captain

Aircraft type: B737-300

Flight: domestic

Synopsis: the captain laments the shortsightedness of his company’s fuel savings policy.

Narrative: We were en route to FLL [Ft. Lauderdale]. Due to weather, we were given a reroute … We plugged in the reroute to the FMC [flight management computer] and determined we did not have sufficient fuel. We asked for a more direct route, but [were] denied. We conferred with the dispatcher, and agreed to divert to PBI [Palm Beach]. We landed at PBI, refueled, and continued to Ft. Lauderdale. The flight plan did not include an alternate. The alternate was selected in flight, collectively, by the flight crew and dispatch. The cause was insufficient fuel load at departure.

[The] first officer and I noticed the fuel load was less than we usually see on this route. We both agreed this was probably the new fuel saving initiative by the company management to save money.

I would suggest money saving initiatives be determined flight by flight. North-south operation is very unpredictable along the East Coast. I don’t think this is a place where we should skimp on fuel.

For your information, after a lengthy discussion with the dispatcher on the ground at Palm Beach, relaying my opinion on the reduced fuel load, and my suggestion not to compromise fuel loads in and out of Florida, the next departure was the identical fuel load I had. So much for my professional input!

Date: March 2008

Reporter: Captain

Aircraft type: Embraer ERJ 145

Flight: domestic

Synopsis: the captain believes company fuel policies are a safety problem.

Narrative: I was flying into XXX … On the 30 mile final we were told to slow to 170 knots, which didn’t help since we then had to use flaps, which was going to make us use more gas. So we touched down and the fuel was in the amber range at 2,500 lbs and we got to the gate and it showed 2,400 lbs. This is less than our FAA required fuel of 2,600 lbs. The thing of it was, we didn’t even have any weather in the area and it was supposed to be 1:09 flight time. I know our program manager is ranking captains on landing with less fuel. I don’t care to be ranked. I think this is a safety problem and I believe fuel is your friend. Looking back, I would have liked more gas yesterday and I was already carrying tanker fuel. If I wouldn’t have had this extra there would have been real problems. When we blocked in, the whole flight took 2:14. That is way over what was planned.

Date: March 2008

Reporter: Captain

Aircraft type: listed only as “commercial fixed wing”

Flight: domestic

Synopsis: dispatched to a destination with bad weather, the flight crew discovered that there were no approach plates aboard for any of the three alternates assigned by dispatch.

Narrative: [Facing overcast skies and rain at destination, Raleigh/Durham Airport.]  Planning ahead, I asked the first officer to get the alternate book out for GSO [Piedmont Triad Airport, Greensboro, NC]. There were no approach plates for any of the three destination alternates given in the pilot route manuals or alternate airport manual. I sent [an] ACARS [Aircraft Communication Addressing & Reporting System] message to dispatch advising of our situation and asked for a calculation of hold and diversion fuel to GSO. Dispatch never replied to this message! With mental math, I quickly determined we had sufficient fuel for one more quick approach attempt at RDU [which was successful, avoiding a divert and making an emergency instrument flight rules diversion to GSO

If we had to divert in this scenario, we would have to land in GSO without any airport plates. I find this method of dispatching is pushing the boundaries of safety and legality.

Callback conversation with reporter revealed the following: reporter advised that his carrier – recently purchased by and merged into another – provided each pilot with a list of operations specifications approved airports. The surviving carrier does not do so. …

Reporter further states that he believes only GSO IAP’s [Instrument Approach Procedure] were included in the aircraft FMS [flight management system] database. There is also a company bulletin advising that some airports are not included in the database and that approaches to those airports would require manual construction of the appropriate IAP. The bulletin did not address how to build the missing database approach if the approach was also one of those for which no plate was available.

Date: January 2007

Reporter: Captain

Aircraft type: A300

Flight: international

Synopsis: Their assignment to an aircraft with multiple deferred items and inadequate planned fuel for their flight from a mountainous Central American airport triggers a tirade against their company’s cost-cutting measures.

Narrative: On said flight I was given an aircraft with just about everything you could have wrong with it – broken brakes, antiskid, wing spoilers, high loads, special airport, mountains, special engine out procedures, etc., etc. It is my belief that this was an extremely marginal dispatch, and only by my 10,000 hours of experience did I feel that it could be done.

It was an exercise in MEL [minimum equipment list] twisting, and I am absolutely confident that if this is the way this company is going to play the game we will soon be on CNN [television], and not in a good way.

I also believe this company is saving money at the extreme cost of safety, especially in this case. We’ve taken just about every facet of what we once had as a safety net and reduced it to saving 50 cents where we can. I am absolutely sure, given one more ingredient in this toxic soup that was handed to me, that disaster is right around the corner, i.e., a captain/first officer that has only seen a video a month ago without the expertise of an experienced check airman. You take this guy with an engine failure in any phase of takeoff and you would have, I mean “would have” ended up with a disastrous outcome.

I’m a firm believer that after 20 years with a 100 percent safety factor that you have squeezed every facet of flight operations into an extremely marginal operation begging a TV covered event!

This is not how I approach my job, and I don’t appreciate it from my company, but at least with the fuel they gave me I had to declare minimum fuel on arrival in Miami and dispatch had to request help from Miami ATC [air traffic control]. This was also discussed with dispatch prior to my departure. It’s almost like a contest to see how far we can spread this company thin, and when an accident happens, we’ll start reintroducing the safety elements we once had. Congratulations to all who got us to this point.

Supplemental information: flight was to be operated with the #7 brake, green antiskid and spoilers 1 and 4 inoperative. The MELs for these items refer to each other and [are] poorly worded. “Spoiler control system” in MEL 32-06 is not defined in the OM [operating manual]. With antiskid inoperative, ground spoilers must be operative. How many panels? Too many questions arise. I believe we were legal to depart, but an argument may be made for being illegal.

Date: January 2007

Reporter: Captain

Aircraft type: B737-700

Flight: domestic

Synopsis: Captain believes arrival – nearly compromised by congestive weather – without a planned alternate, indicates company fuel policy may not be cost effective.

Narrative: Filed to SNA [John Wayne Airport, Orange County, Calif.] with no alternate on file, with SNA forecast showing 2,000 ft. scattered [clouds], 5 NM [visibility]. Departed with 10,500 fuel onboard, with 10,400 required. Arrived in SNA with 4,460 (APU off for entire flight). Despite shaving off miles and time with shortcuts and directs, on arrival, surface visibility was variable from 1 to 5 NM due to sun and haze layer.

A thunderstorm 20 miles south of SNA was showing heavy rain at the time of our landing and was only 5 NM away on departure one hour later. Any go around in SNA or diversion due to weather would have resulted in declaring a fuel emergency.

My estimated saving by reducing [the] fuel load with no alternate is about $25 per leg. Seems like one diversion to refuel would cancel out any savings for the year. Is it worth the “savings”? I will be hard pressed to accept this trip without an alternate ever again.

Date: February 2007

Reporter: Captain

Aircraft type: A319

Flight: domestic

Synopsis: captain reports questionable weather forecasting to allegedly allow flights to depart with less fuel.

Narrative: Just past Denver noticed our destination weather started to go down hard. Occasional ¼ mile visibility in heavy snow, variable to 10 miles, mostly 1-3 miles. Queried dispatch as to when the forecast was going to be amended, and they said [they weren’t] planning on it since the low visibility was just occasional. This weather period lasted well over 3 hours!!!

Queried again later and dispatch never even answered. Got to Dulles just as the weather cleared a bit and landed in chaos. Planes scattered everywhere, jets waiting for non-existent de-ice crews, ramp [radio] frequency overloaded with frustrated crews, every passenger wishing they had not flown our airline.

Obviously, management arrived at work with a blindfold on, again. Once again the folks at Dulles said this was a freak storm and they had no idea it was coming in. This excuse is getting very old. The weather was there!!! Guess what, folks? It snows in winter. Using an outsourced, lowest cost weather service to base our daily operational plan [on] is costing us dearly.

Even when the weather is obviously poor, a refusal to amend the forecast is gross negligence at best, and the dispatch folks who sent releases to crews that were heading into the [Washington ] DC are should have certificate action initiated by the FAA. They can use the lame excuse that they “legally” dispatched the planes with the forecasted weather, but the refusal to force a weather update to reflect the known conditions is wanton behavior that, if condoned, will result in the loss of aircraft in the future.

It places a burden on the rest of us having to fly long approaches for all the jets that have been dispatched with VFR [visual flight rules] fuel into known IFR [instrument flight rules] weather. Our extra fuel gets burned up quickly, and then all the jets are suddenly “minimum fuel.”

As a professional airline pilot, I demand the best information available to safely plan my flight for my passengers. Anything less is totally unacceptable. If the trust between the jointly responsible pilots and dispatchers is broken, then my job as captain becomes even more difficult. I should not have to second guess the dispatcher as to whether I am getting the best information, or the cheapest information, i.e., would an alternate be smart, or is lack of an alternate a cost [saving] measure?

Date: September 2007

Reporter: First Officer

Aircraft type: A320

Flight: domestic

Synopsis: Flight crew relates numerous dispatch issues regarding marginal fuel load, bad weather and inadequate human resources.

Narrative: … To us, someone had fudged the flight plan. You can’t go lower and faster on the same filed route and burn less. We said we did not accept that and wanted the original dispatch generate … fuel of 24.1, and we waited for it. Release arrived with the appropriate fuel. Next, we pushed back and taxied. Taxiing out, dispatch sent us an ACARS [message] saying we were never released. The captain said she had handed a signed copy of the flight plan to the gate agent … when we had originally showed up, but there not being an operations person at Ft. Lauderdale, it was never input to the computer.

So there I am, taxiing at Ft. Lauderdale where we had our most recent runway incursion and where two weeks ago I wrote a report about taxi problems at Ft. Lauderdale and how we are being set up for another runway incursion, as I am heads down having to send the release and then releasing the flight because Ft. Lauderdale has no one working in operations!

We finally got airborne, but as is the case more times than not, if air traffic control has rerouted you once for weather en route, they very likely will reroute you again, and they did. Eighty miles and 10 minutes were added as a result of the second reroute, which used about 800 lbs more fuel. We ended up about 300 lbs above minimum fuel as we flew by St. Louis Airport … Had we not insisted on the increased fuel, we would have diverted or, barring that, been emergency fuel into O’Hare.

The singular cause of every issue we encountered on this flight (the delayed fueling/departure, the pressure to go with the inadequate fuel of Release 1, the “fudged” Release 3, the flight not being released until in the middle of taxiing out, and the near refuel divert into St. Louis) was the understaffing of flight operations. Having gate agents perform the operations functions did not work.

This airline has been cut to the bone. There is a fine line between being above the margin and being below the margin. At times on this flight, people in the chain of events were dipping below that line. Luckily, there were two pilots unwilling to compromise, even in the face of pressure, who pulled everyone else back above the line. We have been put in a bad position, and the management of this airline needs to stop financially managing us to the biggest profit for their bank accounts and start leading us to the best, safest operation.

Date: November 2007

Reporter: Captain

Aircraft type: Embraer ERJ 135

Flight: domestic

Synopsis: Captain reports that company pressures dispatchers and flight crews to not increase fuel.

Narrative: The dispatcher advised me that “management” has directed all dispatchers not to make any changes to the preplanned and greatly reduced holding fuel. This new holding fuel policy was recently initiated to reduce holding fuel to half that which was previously used – without the advice of the flight crews. This is an accident waiting to happen as many are unaware of the shorting of hold fuel in their release.

Release for flight pulled by gate agents and brought to aircraft for quick turn. Noticed holding fuel limited to 10 minutes. Unwilling to accept only 10 minutes of hold fuel on flights in and out of this area due to regular ATC delays on flights in previous weeks.

Contacted dispatcher and asked for 20 minutes of hold fuel. Dispatcher agreed and release was reprinted by gate folks. When reviewed in cockpit, found that dispatcher added fuel, not in holding row but in a “Captain add fuel” row. As this did not reflect the pilot/dispatcher agreement, nor the proper column for the need as agreed, I contacted dispatch and refused the release until the flight paperwork was dispatched properly to reflect the fuel in the needed column.

Company management must not interfere in the captain’s authority nor drastically change the profile company holding fuel without widely publicizing their intentions. Dispatchers must be free to document fuel needs in the appropriate columns without interference from management.

Date: November 2007

Reporter: Captain

Aircraft type: Embraer ERJ 135

Flight: domestic

Synopsis: Captain reports dispatcher anger when fuel is added to provide for taxi to de-ice station. The captain reports the company is monitoring dispatchers who add fuel for unique operational reasons.

Narrative: On a late arrival/quick turn, I realized the flight was dispatched with only 20 minutes of taxi with a need to de-ice due to a brief snow storm that arrived shortly after we touched down. Contacted dispatcher but asked operations for 300 lbs of fuel to be added while I worked details out with dispatch. Communicating issues of exact need prevented a quick fix but finally got the OK to change fuel after the fueler had finished.

Required additional 285 lbs, fuel added 300 lbs, to accommodate long taxi to de-ice bay and taxi back to departure runway. Did not leave gate until I received OK from dispatch but closed door and let pushback crew prepare airplane while we waited for our response over ACARS.

Once flight arrived, I contacted dispatch to discuss, only to find that the dispatcher was incensed over the added fuel before OK was given. After digging as to the reason for his anger, I was advised that company management has been placing a list of dispatchers with higher fuel uptake than “planned,” including taxi fuel and hold fuel. This “list” is posted and performance is based on who is saving more gas. The dispatcher advised that management will not allow them to add any fuel to any column other than the “Captain add” regardless of weather and conditions.

Date: August 2006

Reporter: Captain

Aircraft type: B747-400

Flight: international

Synopsis: Captain reports his airline’s practice of under fueling oceanic dispatched aircraft by not considering all relevant factors during dispatch release.

Narrative: [The airline] seems to change policies on a weekly if not daily basis. The latest policy is, as most of them are, poorly thought out and haphazardly implemented. Typically this company makes decisions based on incomplete data and corporate policies instead of sound operating practices.

In the past, this could sometimes be ignored, but this new “fuel management” program is a real and growing safety hazard. The fuel management program has only been in place for a few weeks, but in that time I have noticed numerous cases of planned landing fuel that is simply not reasonable. Having flown these routes for several years, we can anticipate time and weather dependent delays. Unfortunately, the fuel planners/dispatchers seem to make decisions that are questionable at best. If this continues, and it more than likely will unless they are forced to change, there will be an increasing number of diversions and/or requests for priority handling due to low fuel.

To minimize [the] required fuel load, creative interpretation is used liberally on many planning factors and operational requirements. These include but are not limited to the following:

  1. Planning departures in desired direction of travel, regardless of weather at departure airport or preferred runway,
  2. Cruise based on optimal altitudes only when data exists that indicate they may not be available due to peak traffic or weather,
  3. Elimination of the alternate at re-dispatch point due to inadequate fuel based on a favorable forecast without regard to micro-climates. This is relevant at several airports and company services. The marine layer can and often does drift over the airport, resulting in minimum weather in a very short time. While this is well known, not having any alternate fuel is just bad policy.
  4. Frequent climb and speed restrictions on departure from busy airports during peak times,
  5. Not allowing for en route diversions around cumulo nimbus/RERTES (RERTES are not a big factor on scheduled service). This will become a bigger issue when we start flying more charters [note, RERTES is an acronym for ATC en route re-routing],
  6. Creative use of performance data – the drag index in the FMC [flight management computer] has been changed from 3-4% to zero, resulting in overly optimistic FMC estimated fuel burn.

This is just one facet of a trend that significantly reduces the safety margin. During the last month I have been selectively lied to by maintenance on a serious [engine] bleed incident, coerced into violation of Part 121.485 by crew scheduling, and now face load planning that eliminates all contingency fuel. Combined with a schedule that makes life as difficult and fatiguing as possible and a hostile management, it’s a matter of when – not if – an incident will occur ….

All options were used as efficiently as possible, yet we were unable to match flight planned fuel burn. …

Callback conversation with reporter revealed the following information: reporter stated that his original release airport was Seattle and the re-release at 48N140W was for Los Angeles. Given the fuel usage, the predicted weather at Los Angeles, and other factors, the reporter now feels that there was insufficient fuel to cover all contingencies that should have been considered. There is also a question about whether the 10% required by FAR 121.647(B)(2) is from the re-release point or for the entire flight duration.

Date: December 2006

Reporter: Captain

Aircraft type: A300-600R

Flight: international

Synopsis: Despite adding fuel to the dispatcher’s original plan, the flight is unable to hold for sequencing at New York’s JFK due to insufficient fuel. The crew requests priority handling and lands with very low fuel remaining.

Narrative: Our flight plan indicated marginally acceptable fuel due to no alternate and CAVU [ceiling and visibility unlimited] weather in New York area. I requested extra 1,700 lbs. [fuel] based on recent increasing occurrences of additional New York approach vectoring.

Our oceanic cruise portion required numerous altitude changes and rerouting due to moderate turbulence and adverse weather. Rerouting resulted in increased fuel consumption and lower estimated arrival fuel. New York approach attempted to give is holding … with 55 minutes total fuel on board. We declared “minimum fuel” and touched down with 8,400 lbs (7,600 lbs “in” at gate).

Lately we have been running with lower and lower planned fuel, especially in CAVOK [ceiling and visibility OK]. I understand the importance of this in terms of fuel conservation, however, pop-up CAVOK holding results in fewer options for the flight crews, which ultimately will lead to more diversions.

Date: December 2006

Reporter: First officer

Aircraft type: B747-400 (evidently a freighter from the account below)

Flight: international

Synopsis: A B747-400 first officer describes his airline’s failure to adequately brief flight crews about weather conditions and so enable pilots or dispatchers to modify fuel loads.

Narrative: The captain reviewed the flight plan aware of the fuel awareness program and the pressure that management put its flight crew in. Measures like “the chief pilot forbids any crew from putting excess fuel on the aircraft without the approval of dispatch or flight control.”

The captain’s authority is eroded and certain individual captains “will not” put more fuel on board because of the “environment,” the “fuel saving program” and its forces “in place,” the co-shared “responsibility” between captain and dispatcher [notwithstanding]. Dispatchers “will not” add any additional fuel regardless of compromising or potential changing weather conditions. Quite often, an alternate less than 25 NM away is planned.

Both dispatch and company maintenance control have coerced flight crews into taking a flight or continuing to destination.

This environment exists because of a lame FAA safety effort. If there is no incident or accident, “it’s OK.” This flight was operated successfully because we were fortunate. However, this report attempts to identify a dispatcher and a “weak” captain or coerced captain through the “culture” that exists.

We were dispatched into severe weather with no NOTAMS [Notice to Airmen] of pilot reports. The jetstream was over Sweden and dropped very low, affecting the destination. I seriously doubt there were no operational NOTAMS for this date. On approach, we experienced 60 knots of wind at 2,000 ft. … and moderate turbulence to ground level along with blowing rain. Forecast identified … a wet runway. The conditions were strong and an aircraft diverted due to a windshear warning in the cockpit. The aircraft experienced this approximately 500 ft. above ground level.

We – a B747-400 landing around 300,000 kilos or 660,000 lbs., equipped with three autopilots, were bouncing around like a bucking bronco. At one point on the approach from 500 ft. to landing we had plus or minus 20 knots airspeed fluctuation. It was a controlled approach and the autopilots and autothrottles performed very well. Had we disconnected and manually flown this, a missed approach would be the result.

The weather we experienced did not show on the weather package we received from company dispatch. Had we pilots been given the FAA required “all available weather,” we pilots would have been able to assess that we needed an alternate “not in the same weather system.” As it was, we were given XXX 75 NM away. Their weather could have been similar. We received no updates via ACRS or SATCOM en route on our 6 hour flight.

It is my opinion there is a culture that exists at this carrier through the director of operations, the vice president of flight operations, [and the] chief pilot that they will only give the FAA required fuel for dispatching and the dispatchers will not intervene. All too often, captains will not add fuel and remove freight to accommodate the need to.

Upon our approach, which was very close to my limits of comfort, we pilots would not have the FAA minimum fuel requirements to miss [the] approach and go to XXX, our alternate, and block in with the aircraft FOM [Flight Operations Manual] minimum of 550 kilos [of fuel], which is a Boeing figure that is established from the Boeing flight manual.

This report identifies a culture of management coercion to influence the dispatchers and flight crew to operate and move the freight by restricting information (lack of operational NOTAMs). It also identifies the fuel saving program that takes preference over safety (compromising meteorological flight situations).

Date: December 2006

Reporter: air traffic controller

Aircraft type: MD-80

Flight: domestic

Synopsis: a controller requests a speed increase from an aircraft, which is refused because of fuel burn concerns.

Narrative: Aircraft XXX is leading the pack of arrivals. In order to establish spacing by speed control, I asked the pilot his speed, to which he replied, 280 knots. Not wanting the pack to stack up behind him, I asked the pilot to increase speed to 300 knots. He refused, saying, “Basically, we’re at minimum fuel for landing.

I asked if he had done any deviating en route, to which the answer was the non-sequitur, “We’ve had strong headwinds.” I have no idea what the winds were like for the entire route, but they were only half what we’ve seen in the sector over the last week or so.

I assigned aircraft XXX 280 knots, then assigned the following aircraft speeds so as to not overtake him. There were eight aircraft on frequency. I was incredulous that an air carrier would run so close to margins on a clear, relatively weather-free day, without having had any extra flying time en route.

I realize that companies want to cut their fuel weight down, but this is ridiculous. What if there is an incident t the airport that causes it to lose a runway, and lower the acceptance rate? Then, even on a nice weather day, those airplanes are holding. Are the company fuel policies such now that they feel free to disregard the requirement for 45 minutes of fuel for hold before diverting to an alternate? As hard as it is for me to believe that moderate headwinds chewed up all this pilot’s fuel reserves, the alternative is altogether too unsavory to contemplate. Was this airplane really out of fuel, or has the company put so much pressure on pilots to cut fuel consumption that they will make up excuses such as “minimum fuel” when ATC [air traffic control] asks for a mere 20 knot speed increase? Or does the responsibility fall on dispatch for failing/refusing to load enough fuel to fulfill requirements?

In any case, this flight would seem to represent a case of “dice rolling” at its most dangerous.


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