WASHINGTON (AFP) — A review by federal authorities has revealed a sharp increase in planes, particularly from Continental Airlines, flying into the New York area with so little fuel that they demand an emergency landing.
In a report on minimum and emergency fuel declarations into Newark airport last year, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) expressed concern that some of the incidents may be prompted by fuel-saving measures.
"We are concerned that fuel-saving measures may have contributed to the low fuel declarations because of two pilot bulletins issued by Continental Airlines in 2007," the report said.
In the notes to pilots, in February and October 2007, Continental expressed concern with the number of fuel stops pilots were making on flights from Europe into Newark, which is based in New Jersey, and urged a reduction.
According to the DOT report, the airline's second bulletin "further stated that adding fuel indiscriminately without critical thinking ultimately reduces profit sharing and possible pension funding."
The DOT expressed concern that "these types of bulletins might put pressure on pilots to either not stop for fuel when needed or to carry insufficient amounts of fuel."
Emergency fuel declarations alert controllers on the ground that flight crews need priority in landing because their fuel levels are dangerously low.
The majority of the minimum or emergency fuel declarations made into Newark last year -- some 66 percent -- were on transatlantic flights, and Continental accounted for 64 percent, or 96 of the 151 total incidents, the report said.
By comparison, 72 such incidents were recorded at Newark's airport in 2006 and 44 in 2005.
No similar trends have been noted at other US airports.
The report cited the case of a Continental flight from Barcelona in which pilots made minimum fuel declarations to Newark 23 times in 2007.
Continental Airlines issued a statement assuring that Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules were not violated, and that "safety was not compromised in any of the situations" evaluated by DOT.
"Neither the DOT nor anyone else has suggested that Continental Airlines has contravened any regulations in its aircraft fuelling procedures," company spokesman Dave Messing said in a statement.
"Continental uses FAA-approved flight planning programs to ensure that every flight has more than enough fuel to reach its destination," he said, adding that "none of the flights studied had less than a 45-minute reserve on board when they landed."
The review, which was prompted by Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, found the majority of flights making the emergency declarations came from Europe and involved twin-engine Boeing 757s, which were not originally planned for transatlantic services.
"We found that minimum and emergency fuel declarations had increased on flights into the Newark area," DOT inspector general Calvin Scovell wrote in a letter to Lautenberg.
"However, there were no instances where aircraft landed with fuel levels below those required by the FAA."
Messing said all of Continental's Boeing 757s have been fitted with "winglets, which increase their fuel efficiency by approximately five percent," and that the airline was the first to make such modifications to that aircraft type.
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