Danger in the Sky: Underfueled Planes

Investigation shows pilots requesting more emergency landings due to low fuel.

Nov. 8, 2007 — -- As oil prices soar, it may mean that some airlines may soon not be. United Airlines has announced it may have to ground 100 planes because gas has become so expensive.

An investigation by WABC-NY reporter Jim Hoffer found that some airlines might be trying to cut costs by lightening the load and flying with less fuel. But that has put some flights and passengers at risk.

In April, a pilot on a commercial plane entering New York airspace contacted air traffic control to say that his aircraft was running low on fuel.

The recorded conversation between the pilot and air traffic controllers offered a chilling glimpse into the potential dangers in commercial air travel.

Pilot: "We are minimum fuel, sir."

Air traffic controller: "You're declaring an emergency at this time. The time is now 22:57. I need the souls on board and fuel in pounds when you arrive."

Pilot: "Copy that. One hundred fifty-seven souls on board. We have exactly 38 minutes of fuel remaining."

Controllers gave the plane priority landing and it safely touched down with just minutes of fuel remaining.

Retired Pilot Forced to Fudge the Numbers

An examination of thousands of airport operational logs, air traffic tapes and interviews with pilots and controllers reveal airlines may be pushing the margin of safety by cutting back on the amount of fuel per flight.

At Newark Liberty International Airport, just five flights landed under minimum or low-fuel conditions over a six-month period in 2005. In a similar period this year, 73 flights came into the same airport with minimum fuel.

Perhaps most disturbing, an additional 10 flights had to declare the more serious emergency fuel situation — meaning they needed to land immediately or they risked running out of gas.

Air traffic controller Ray Adams says in the last two years he's noticed an astounding increase in the number of flights coming into Newark under minimum or emergency fuel conditions.

"When aircraft come into our airport at Newark with a minimum fuel state, they become a priority for us and it's an extra focus of attention on that aircraft, which increases the complexity of your already complex operation," Adams said.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires airlines to carry additional fuel in case of unexpected delays, but pilots who spoke to WABC said some airlines are putting pressure on them to cut back on this fuel safety cushion to save money.

Veteran commercial airline pilot Bruce Meyer, who retired last year, said he was called out by an airline for carrying too much fuel.

"I was specifically called in and asked why I was adding fuel as many times as I had been adding, which I had to explain the reasons, which were air traffic control delays that I knew about every morning," Meyer said.

Meyer said the competing pressures to carry less fuel at a time when there are more and more in-flight delays forced him to fudge the numbers to maintain safety.

"I had to use different ruses to make the paperwork or hide the fact that I was putting fuel on board, but my responsibility as captain is to my passengers, my aircraft, my crew and to the safety of that flight," Meyer said.

The FAA declined to be interviewed for this report. But in a statement to WABC, the agency said it tracks only emergency landings. It doesn't keep track of minimum fuel reports — although the data used in the WABC investigation came directly from FAA documents.