American Airlines Pilots Balk at Directive to Fly With Less Fuel

Commercial air carriers are not the most popular corporations right now.  Passengers often complain about hidden fees and hassels for food, checked-in luggage and more.  But the industry is still struggling post-9/11, and it is one industry that has barely been profitable since the last century.  Commercial aviation is also highly susceptible to spikes in fuel price, and while more research on alternative fuels offers hope, for the time being, petroleum is the name of the game.  Air carriers are looking at every nook in their planes and every step in their operations in an effort to reduce fuel consumption and therefore, costs.  So if we are carrying less luggage and eating less mystery meat on flights, that means less fuel is wasted, so these changes are not necessarily a bad trend.

Now one of the United States’ largest airlines is instructing its pilots to reduce the amount of fuel they carry on flights, resulting so far in little more than a brewing fight between labor and management.  American Airlines wants to save energy and money by using computerized modeling to load less fuel, and if pilots object, they have to complete paperwork explaining why.

American’s management claims reducing a flight’s fuel load reduces the hauling of unnecessary fuel.  After all, planes burn more fuel from carrying the weight of . . . more fuel.  Pilots believe that the rules are onerous and are usurping pilots control.

But both sides acknowledge the statistics that make the case for taking such a measure to carry less fuel makes economic and business sense.  American’s mandate requiring 65 minutes of fuel at the end of a plane’s flight is well above the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) requirement:  45 minutes of fuel at the end of a domestic flight and 30 minutes on international arrivals (should that be reversed?).  Those reserves, incidentally, are only tapped on 0.2% of all flights in the US.  Such a rule does not mean that a plane would ever exhaust its fuel tank—but there is a case to be made that during bad weather, flights could be diverted, which now happens 0.32% of the time for American Airlines.

Both parties in this dispute could resolve their differences if American would provide counseling and training necessary, instead of risking confrontation by having pilots, who already endure a stressful job, fill out more tedious paperwork.  But while we wait and hope that a start-up out there masters the technology to turn algae into biofuel, there is plenty that airlines can do.

Take Southwest, for example.  It has left competition in the dust for years by flying only one model of aircraft and having planes fly the most efficient routes possible.  The vast majority of its planes are equipped with winglets, which reduce the average airplane fuel consumption by about 3%.  Most of the gates in cities to which Southwest flies are retrofitted with electricity hookups that allow planes to be powered by the grid instead of using that precious jet fuel.  Finally, the airline’s navigation systems uses space-based GPS instead of ground-based GPS technologies, saving even more fuel for the firm.

Considering the statistics involved with the new American Airlines program, the new directive appears to make environmental and business sense.  It’s unfortunate that the management-labor tensions that have historically plagued the industry is getting in the way of a program that is beneficial all around.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, Contact him at You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). He is currently living and working in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.