By Gas and by God - when more than just time is running out
Was it a late call?


A Delta Air Lines jets taxi on and off the runway.
A Delta Air Lines jets taxi on and off the runway.

November 19, 2004, 7:59 AM EST

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating whether a Delta Shuttle flight to LaGuardia Nov. 3 took off from Washington without enough fuel after officials learned the pilot declared a fuel emergency just 10 miles from the airport.

The plane landed safely, but the FAA's Flight Standards Division, which oversees airlines and pilots, wants to know why the pilot declared an emergency so close to the departure airport.

"Flight standards will be looking at how much fuel they had on board," said FAA spokeswoman Arlene Murray. "They will be looking at the tapes, talking to the pilot ... The question is, did they follow FAA regulations. "If the FAA finds its requirements weren't followed, it could impose a civil penalty against Delta or an action against the pilot's certificate.

Pilots say normal procedure would be for a pilot to notify controllers of a low-fuel situation before it became an emergency to plan a landing.

The emergency came to the attention of air traffic controllers on Long Island at about 9:25 p.m. as Delta Flight 1966 was descending toward LaGuardia. Controllers, trying to deal with a backup created after an earlier flight wasn't able to land at LaGuardia, told the pilot of the Boeing 737 to make a turn.

The pilot responded that he did not have enough fuel to turn. In the next radio transmission, he said, I'm a fuel emergency," according to sources familiar with the tapes. The controllers sent the flight directly to the airport. But the incident raised concern because it was the first time the New York controllers were told that the plane's fuel was running low.

A Delta spokeswoman said the airline is cooperating with the investigation.

The term "emergency" is not lightly used in aviation. It's more common for controllers to hear a "minimum fuel advisory," meaning that once the flight reaches its destination, it has to land quickly.

The incident comes at a time when airlines are focusing more than ever on fuel-saving measures. Carrying extra fuel adds weight, which makes the flight burn more fuel. That costs airlines more money.

With the price of jet fuel high and most carriers in a precarious financial position, some industry insiders say pressure is on pilots and dispatchers to take off with less cushion of extra fuel than in the past.

Aviation sources gave the following account: Delta Flight 1966 was scheduled to leave National Airport in Washington at 7:30 p.m. It's not clear when the plane pushed back from the gate, but the flight was held on the ground for about an hour with a planeload of passengers bound for New York. As the plane taxied, it burned fuel.

At about 8:40 p.m., around the same time the plane became airborne, Delta contacted the FAA's air traffic control command center just outside Washington and asked for a shorter route for Flight 1966, saying the plane didn't have enough fuel for the route that had been assigned. The call was placed to a tactical customer advocate, a liaison with airlines. Such requests are not uncommon.

FAA officials at the command center contacted the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center in Ronkonkoma, which was handling part of the flight, and air traffic managers there gave the flight a shortcut to a navigational point over New Jersey. Sources said the flight was given several shortcuts along the way.

At 9:05 p.m., the tower at LaGuardia told a flight to abort its landing, forcing another plane that was about to land back into the sky. As Flight 1966 got closer to New York, it was handed off to air traffic controllers at the New York TRACON in Westbury, who were working to create more room in the lineup of arrivals for LaGuardia. The traffic backup was not unusual around New York's busy airports.

At 9:25 p.m., an air traffic controller in Westbury told Flight 1966 to make a turn to create more space in the lineup of arriving planes. That's when the pilot responded that he didn't have enough fuel to turn.

Air traffic controllers say they should have been told earlier. "That's the type of information that's critical to people vectoring those airplanes," said Dean Iacopelli, an officer with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the union that represents controllers.

On domestic flights, the FAA requires pilots to carry additional fuel for 45 minutes extra flying time, plus enough to get to an alternate airport in bad weather. But planning for fuel is a far more complex process. The airline's dispatchers, who calculate the amount of fuel, use information about runway length, airplane weight and winds, and take into account whether the plane is flying into a congested area and likely to be put in a holding pattern.

The dispatcher and the captain must agree on the amount of fuel before the plane can take off. It's not clear what happened in the Delta case, but industry insiders say pilots who want more fuel on top of what the dispatcher requested are being questioned more now.

"The dispatchers are under a lot of pressure not to give it to them," said Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst based in Port Washington.

In recent months, the FAA has allowed American and Continental airlines to fly with half the reserves previously required on overseas flights after the airlines convinced the agency that flying with less reserves was not a safety problem.

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