Posted by: harrisonjones | May 7, 2011


According to the Bureau of Transportation, in January of this year U.S. air carriers used 866,100,000 gallons of fuel at an average cost of $2.62 per gallon. Check my math. That’s $2,273,200,000 in fuel expense for the airlines. Add to that the expense of paying employees (about 80,000 for a large airline) and making the payments on a fleet of 150 million dollar airplanes. We won’t worry about the cost of leasing terminal space and paying landing fees. Suddenly the price I paid for my airline ticket doesn’t seem so bad after all. 

Every airline has a fuel conservation program and every pilot is burdened with balancing safety versus saving fuel. For instance, how much extra fuel should be carried on a particular flight? Obviously carrying extra fuel increases the gross weight and therefore the fuel burn. The FAR’s require that the total include fuel to destination, plus fuel to the alternate, plus forty five minutes of holding. International flights also require a ten per cent contingency to be added. I can’t count the number of times I watched my holding fuel disappear and wished I had carried more. Bad weather adds pressure for the decision, but weather is not the only reason you may have to seek an alternate. Consider the earthquake in Japan that closed the airports. I promise you there was not one inbound captain that thought he was fat on fuel.  

Another seemingly simple solution is to taxi on one engine. One engine provides plenty of thrust to taxi, but there are other considerations. Does one engine provide all the hydraulics, pneumatics, and electricity you need? Losing the brakes is not a good idea and reducing the air conditioning on a hot day doesn’t make you any friends except for the bean counters in the office. There are other things to consider. The airplane will begin its taxi with little more than idle thrust from two or three engines, but will require much more from one engine. I watched a Boeing 727 blow a jetway over in Greensboro, North Carolina one morning. I also saw a MD-11, taxing on one engine, create a tremendous and unexpected crosswind for a landing aircraft behind him at JFK. A string of expletives ensued that is uncommon to professional radio communications.  

Another interesting statistic that I recently saw indicated that 80% of general aviation accidents are fuel related. I can also think of four airliners off hand that ran out of fuel. An Air Canada 767 that was fueled improperly dead sticked to a safe landing. All I can say is, “WOW.” A DC-9 ditched in the Caribbean between St. Thomas and St. Croix, with multiple fatalities. A 707 ran out of fuel while holding at JFK and killed everyone aboard and a DC-8 ran out of fuel at Portland, Oregon with the same result.  

In keeping with the philosophy of rules by body count, the PDX accident was a fore runner of CRM training and the ditching is why airline crews now wear epaulets on their shoulders so that they can be identified in an emergency. There is a book titled 35  MILES FROM SHORE: The ditching and rescue of ALM flight 980 by Emilio Corsetti III describing the accident. Whoever said, “The only time you have too much fuel is when you’re on fire,” obviously has been there and done that. Fuel or the lack thereof is a factor in both of my novels, Shadow Flight (a Cessna 172) and Equal time Point (a MD-11).

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