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Getting the fuel equation right

The tragic accident with a charter plane carrying a Brazilian football team in November 2016 showed the world how important it is to have the fuel calculations right. Less fuel on board of aircraft can save money and time to airlines. Aircraft with less fuel are less heavy and need less fuel. This race to cut fuel costs affects pilots heavily. They must solve the impossible equation of loading sufficient fuel to have a reasonable margin of safety and comply with their management’s cost cutting target.

The minimum amount of fuel that is required for any given flight is based on international regulations. It takes into account fuel to the destination, distance to alternate airport, meteorological reports and forecasts, air traffic services procedures and many other operational factors. Pilots make these mathematical calculations as part of their pre-flight preparation and the commander is ultimately responsible for making sure the flight has enough fuel to land safely. Pilots are taught these simple fuel calculations in flight school. However, in today’s operational environment, solving the fuel equation turns out to be more complicated, as one additional factor is thrown in the mix: the airline fuel policy.

Pilots must solve the impossible equation: loading sufficient fuel for a safe flight & complying with the airline's fuel policy

Under the pressure of fierce competition on the market, airline fuel policies have become more and more stringent. While most airlines promote responsible fuel planning, for others - fuel saving has become a primary goal.

The last couple of years, a series of serious incidents due to fuel’s low levels happened in Europe. Fuel emergencies of CityJet, an Irish carrier, and Ryanair prompted calls for scrutinizing the rules and fuel policies in Europe already back in 2010. Then in 2012, 3 more fuel emergency landings of Ryanair aircraft and one of LAN Chile – within a very short period of time – made clear that fuel planning and management practices must be scrutinized. A couple of pertinent questions popped up after these incidents: “How much flexibility to deal with contingencies will be left if all pilots are required take the absolute minimum amount of fuel? What happens to the safety resilience of the system if all airlines enforced the most strict fuel policy?”

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Some airlines use their fuel-data statistics to rank their pilots on monthly fuel-saving performance

These questions are now being examined by EASA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, where a Review Group is trying to come up with a comprehensive and up to date set of safety requirements for operators’ fuel policies. And that is a very urgent and ambitious task.

While the Commander Is ultimately responsible for proper fuel planning and for the amount to be taken onboard, some operators seem to leave only anecdotal room for true decision making. Some airlines use their fuel-data statistics to rank their pilots on monthly fuel-saving performance. These ‘fuel league tables’, combined with sometimes very subtle pressures and hints to improve their ‘fuel saving performance’ can  seriously impair the pilot‘s willingness and ability to take independent, safety-based decisions. The pilot ends up in a catch22-type situation: take more than what the operator’s policy encourages, and you might be in trouble; take less, and you will be in trouble if anything unforeseen happens on your flight.

Solving the fuel equation is the entire #aviation industry’s task

Against this background, a new ECA Position Paper outlines the dos & don’ts for operators fuel management policies. Among the key recommendations are that any form of such fuel performance ranking and any statistical use of fuel related data must be de-identified. It must also be governed by Just Culture principles.

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New ECA Position Paper on Fuel Policy

This position paper provides general recommendations regarding fuel policy, an overview of the different fuel phases of flight and further fuel related issues for commercial air transport operation.

Relevant up-to-date fuel consumption data as well as flight operational information is crucial for pilots during preflight planning. Based on this information and the Commander’s past experience, he/she can opt for taking additional fuel to cater for unexpected or hidden threats.

Last but not least, a robust and successful fuel policy requires adequate oversight by authorities. Currently, oversight is primarily based on random checks. A better system would be to oversee fuel policies based on data monitoring, occurrence reporting and safety performance indicators within the industry. This would allow seeing the bigger picture throughout the industry.

And this is needed because fuel planning is the Commander‘s responsibility and prerogative. But solving the fuel equation is the entire industry’s task. Let’s get it right.