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 has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

3 responses

  1. I don't really follow the pilot objections? They don't want to do this because there's more paperwork required? or because they think they're going to be diverted more often which is more of a pain for them?

    Also, I wonder if those .32% of planes that are being diverted are being diverted because they run out of fuel or simply because the weather at the airport they're flying into doesn't support a landing. My guess is the latter, which makes any stink about increased diversions due to less extra fuel irrelevant.

  2. Dinesh–thank you for the comment. The whole controversy seems ridiculous because AA's new mandate is still well above the FAA's minimum requirement. I think a lot of this stems from the historic hostility between management and labor within the airline industry, which has become especially bitter post-9/11, and people just naturally resist change. Pilots argue it's just another reason for management to impose more onerous restrictions on them and such a rule undermines their authority–my understanding is that current fuel requirements in the end are up to the pilot's discretion. It seems to me that airlines could address this by proper training and consultation, rather than treating this like a directive (AA also has a history of clumsy management moves, such as requiring that soldiers going to Iraq pay for their luggage–only to end it after a huge public outcry!)

    My mistake not being clear–that 0.32% figure is from faulty weather, not because a plane ran out of fuel.

  3. Ah, ok makes a lot more sense now. (and wow – requiring soldiers on their way to Iraq to pay for their luggage. that is definitely pretty outrageous.)

    Agreed, some simple training is probably all they need here. I'd like to say one day AA will get it's act together, but I think that would be some very wishful thinking.

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