Are planes flying with enough fuel?

February 4, 2009 6:13:32 PM PST
There is an update on an Eyewitness News investigation into planes flying on low fuel at Newark airport. Critics say that is putting passengers at greater risk.Our report prompted the Department of Transportation to do its own investigation. The Investigators' Jim Hoffer has more on those findings.

The inspector general's findings mirror some of the same problems we found last November. And while the report found no aircraft landed with fuel below the required level, it does appear the FAA's did allow one airline to push the legal limits to keep fuel costs down.

The new report confirms the findings of the Eyewitness News investigation, that minimum or emergency fuel declarations by pilots at Newark airport have risen dramatically.

The inspector general found a 343 percent increase in the fuel declarations, from 44 in 2005 to 151 in 2007. The majority were on Continental flights.

Minimum fuel means an airplane's fuel supply has reached a level where upon reaching its destination, the pilot can accept little or no delay. It is a step before an emergency. But the inspector general found the FAA failed to keep track of pilots declaring minimum or emergency fuel and rarely investigated when incidents were reported.

"The FAA has failed to understand that its most important responsibility is ensuring safety of flight," former National Transportation Safety Board chair James Hall said.

The inspector general report partially attributes the increase in minimum fuel incidents to the FAA allowing Continental to cut in half its fuel reserves on overseas flights from the required 10 to 5 percent. That allowed Continental to use smaller planes on overseas flights.

The inspector general's report shows both the pilot's union and Continental's own inspector expressed concern because of the smaller planes' limited range, even with full tanks.

"It would appear that this is another indication of the FAA being too cozy with the airlines," Hall said. "In this case, specifically, Continental Airlines."

The FAA says its review "did not identify any cases where there was a violation of regulations related to fuel. We did see cases where there was confusion about the meaning of the terms "minimum" fuel and "emergency" fuel...We issued information to operators, FAA inspectors and air traffic controllers to clarify the meaning and the use of the terms."

But New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg says the FAA is too lax.

"The FAA has to be more diligent about what they are doing and have the personnel available to do it," he said.

In a statement, Continental says it doesn't cut corners on ensuring aircraft have enough fuel. Each flight, the airline says, has ample fuel and a significant reserve. They add that none of the flights studied had less than a 45-minute reserve on board when they landed.