New document adds fuel to airline controversy

Eyewitness News Exclusive
November 14, 2007 9:00:00 PM PST
There is more evidence that some airlines may be putting the financial squeeze on pilots to save fuel. The Eyewitness News Investigators first broke the story of planes landing low on fuel. Now, there's a disturbing document that has angered pilots and raises serious safety questions.

The document came to us after the airing of our first report. It's a memo from Continental's senior flight operations director to the airlines 4,500 pilots. The memo pressures the pilots to conserve fuel or possibly risk their pension funds.

Continental Flight 69 landed at Newark Liberty low on fuel, just one step below an emergency. An isolated incident? Not according to this air traffic controller:

"It's an astounding increase in minimum fuel activity. I've noticed it in working everyday just in the number of calls that we get," said air traffic controller Ray Adams.

Daily air traffic control logs we've obtained document this increase: During a six month period this year, 56 Continental flights came into Newark with low or minimum fuel. Compare that to a similar period two years ago, when Continental had just one minimum fuel landing.

The memo recently given to us by a Continental pilot may shed light on why minimum fuel landings are on the rise. While telling pilots that management will "respect their authority and judgement" on how much fuel they decide to carry, the memo then warns that "adding fuel indiscriminately... ultimately reduces profit sharing and possibly pension funding."

Retired airline captain Bob Ober says the document is a clear pressure tactic to get pilots to save the company money by cutting back on the reserve cushion of fuel needed for unexpected delays, cutting back on fuel makes planes lighter and lighter planes burn less fuel which can save thousands per flight.

"You don't say to a pilot for every extra gallon of gas you put on this airplane your retirement or pension sharing will be affected. that's not the way you put this," Ober said.

In an e-mail sent to us by a Continental pilot, he calls the bulletin "a veiled threat against pilot pensions if pilots continue to add fuel." He goes on to write that "having too much fuel in the New York City air traffic control system is always a good prudent idea."

It's a good idea because planes entering New York's crowded airspace never know whether they'll get stuck waiting for their turn to land.

Newark Liberty International, a Continental hub, has the most delayed landings in the nation. These delays coupled with pressure to carry less fuel that might explain why some Continental pilots are landing low on fuel.

"If there's pushing going on, you bet we're concerned and we''ll address that but at the end of the day the Captain has the authority the amount of fuel that goes on that airplane," said Captain Terry McVenes of the Airline Pilots Association.

In a statement to us, Continental points out that "pilots can request additional fuel if they feel it is necessary for their flight." The airline says "each flight is carefully planned to ensure that it has adequate fuel, including ample reserves to handle delays or diversions" -- adding that Continental has "...a strong focus on fuel efficiency, but that always takes a back seat to safety."

But some pilots say memos like this where fuel load is tied to profit sharing and pension funds errode their authority and ultimately safety.

Continental says while it has a strong focus on fuel efficiency, it insists that safety is its top priority. We should note that our investigation found other airlines landing with low fuel at Newark. We focused on Continental because of the memo.

This investigation began with a tip, so if you have something you need investigated please give our tipline a call at 877-TIP-NEWS.