Underlying this entire investigation is this simple fact: In the past 20 months, the cost of jet fuel has skyrocketed by 38 percent. So, cash-strapped airlines are doing whatever they can to cut back on fuel. But our investigation has found this could be putting passengers at risk -- and now New Jersey's two U.S. Senators want something done.
A commercial plane entering New York airspace contacts air traffic control to tell them they're running low on fuel:
Pilot: "We are minimum fuel sir."
Air Traffic Control: "You're declaring emergency at this time, time is 22:57 ... I need souls on board and when you arrive."
Pilot: "157 souls on board, we have exactly 38 minutes of fuel remaining."
ATC: "38 minutes of fuel ... that is an emergency."
Controllers gave the plane priority landing last April. It safely touched down with just minutes of fuel remaining.
Our 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, possibly putting passengers at risk.
Take the case of Newark Liberty International, where in a six month period in 2005 just five flights landed under minimum or low fuel conditions. Compare that to a similar period in 2007 in which 73 flights came into Newark 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.
"I had one just last week that happened," Air traffic controller Ray Adams said.
Adams says in the past 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 ... with 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 FAA requires airlines to carry additional fuel in case of unexpected delays. But pilots we spoke to say some airlines are putting pressure on them to cut back on this fuel safety cushion to save money.
Jim Hoffer: "At one point you were called on the carpet for carrying too much fuel?" Bruce Meyer, pilot: "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."
Veteran commercial airline pilot Bruce Meyer retired last year. He says 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 rouses 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.
Captain Meyer's case is hardly isolated. Anonymous reports we've obtained from NASA's aviation safety reporting system shows pilots all around the country concerned that pressure to conserve fuel is compromising safety.
One pilot says his airline's "fuel saving program takes preference over safety." Another writes, "It's a case of dice rolling at its most dangerous."
"They're taking away the margin of safety," said former NTSB Chairman James Hall.
James Hall, who spent seven years as head of the National Transportation Safety Board, says our investigation should not be ignored. "Seeing numbers like that the FAA administrators should be calling the airlines in on the carpet and find out what's going on," Hall said. The FAA declined an interview for this story. In a statement to us, the agency said it only tracks emergency fuel landings, not minimum fuel.
The agency representing airlines also declined an interview, but did say it has confidence in the FAA's fuel reserve standards.
New Jersey Senators Respond
New Jersey's Senator Frank Lautenberg, in response to our report, sent a letter to the Department of Transportation's Inspector General calling on him to investigate "this potentially dangerous situation."
The state's other senator is also troubled by our findings.
"That is simply not acceptable ... the FAA shouldn't accept it ... companies shouldn't be promoting it and ultimately the government cannot tolerate it," Senator Robert Menendez said.
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