(EurActiv) — Airlines’ efforts to lighten their aircraft by taking on less fuel could be putting passengers at risk, European pilots and labour organisations say following several incidents where flight crews made emergency landings because of low fuel reserves.
Spanish civil aviation authorities are investigating Ryanair, the low-cost passenger airline, after three pilots made emergency landings within minutes of one another as their aircraft approached the minimum fuel levels required under European Union safety regulations.
While such incidents are relatively rare, the European Cockpit Association (ECA) says pilots are under mounting commercial pressure to lighten their loads by keeping fuel supplies to a minimum because of higher prices. The cost of jet fuel in July was up 7.5% compared to a year earlier (see background).
“We see that there is more and more pressure on pilots to take decisions on factors other than safety,” said Nico Voorbach, president of ECA, which represents 38,000 pilots in Europe.
Without naming airlines by name, Voorbach told EurActiv that pilots are being offered financial rewards to minimise fuel loads. He also blamed government austerity measures for reducing the ranks of inspectors who monitor EU safety compliance.
EU regulations require passenger aircraft to carry sufficient fuel to handle contingencies – such as unexpected delays or re-routing to other airports – and to request emergency landings when passenger aircraft approach a 30-minute fuel capacity.
An emergency request based on low fuel alerts air traffic controllers to give a plane priority landing without triggering deployment of ground rescue crews, and in the case of diversions, the captain or co-pilot would typically explain the circumstance to passengers.
EU laws also give captains broad discretion to order additional fuel – beyond calculated consumption for taxing, flight time and aircraft weight – if they anticipate heavy traffic or weather delays at destination airports.
“While the practices of promoting flying with less extra fuel do conform to law, they are also raising questions whether complying with the minimum standards of the EU Commission Regulation is sufficient to provide passenger safety,” the ECA said in a statement on 3 September. “Promoting fuel saving might well be helping to maintain profit margins, but it can also drastically narrow the safety margins.”
The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in Köln did not respond to telephone and e-mail requests for comment the safety allegations.
Ryanair defends actions
The Spanish government is investigating what happened on 26 July when three Ryanair pilots requested emergency landings at the Valencia airport after reporting flight delays over Madrid of more than an hour because of stormy weather. Each aircraft had an estimated half-hour of fuel left on landing.
Ryanair’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, has denied any negligence, saying the airline leaves it to the pilot’s discretion on how much fuel they take on and that requests for emergency landings are made based on EU in-flight fuel requirements. The airline claims that each of the Madrid-bound flights – FR2054, FR5998 and FR5389 – were in compliance with the EU fuel safety zone.
O’Leary said in a statement after the Spanish government’s allegations that the three pilots “correctly and properly declared fuel emergencies when their aircraft were approaching their minimum (30 minutes) landing fuel, as required by EU safety regulations.”
The airline has also vigorously denied allegations that it has pressured pilots to cut costs or has penalised pilots who have not done said.
But Evan Cullen, who heads the Irish Airline Pilots Association, told the Irish Times that Ryanair was “making pilots uncomfortable about taking extra fuel when they feel they need to take extra fuel.”
The emergency landings mark one of several clashes between the low-cost carrier and the Spanish government. Just six days before the fueling incidents, Ryanair announced planned cut flights to Madrid and Barcelona to protest higher airport taxes. Four days later, on 24 July, the airline urged the Spanish government to prohibit police officers to carry firearms onto aircraft after an officer reportedly carried a concealed weapon on board.