Fuel and Circling

Q: I’ve been on flights where we’ve had to circle for an hour before landing. How much fuel is on board for these situations? Do airlines cheat to save money?

Fuel loads are ascertained beforehand, according to regulation and subject to weather, traffic, and other variables. The regulations are intricate, differing between domestic and overseas operations, but the old domestic rule is a good indicator of how conservatively things work: there must always be enough fuel to carry a plane to its intended destination, then to its designated alternate airport(s), and then for at least another 45 minutes. Sometimes, two or more alternate airports must be filed in a flight plan (another batch of rules), upping the total accordingly. When delays or holding patterns are expected, even more is added. The fuel portion of the preflight paperwork can be lengthy.

Although the dispatchers and planners devise the figures, pilots have the final say and can request extra. Carrying surplus fuel costs money, but it’s not nearly as expensive as the hassles of diversions. Or accidents. A scan of my memory banks comes up with exactly two cases of fuel depletion crashes in the modern aviation era — a United DC-8 near Portland, Oregon, in 1978, and an Avianca 707 near Kennedy airport in 1990.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.