Friday, September 05, 2008


Can your plane run out of gas before it gets to Honolulu? Yes!

by Larry Geller

In an August 13 article, How about a fuel tip jar at airport counters?, I wondered if commercial flights to Hawaii might run out of fuel enroute. Here’s the problem in a nutshell:

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration requires that an aircraft carry enough fuel to reach its destination and the most distant alternate airport, plus an extra 45 minutes’ worth. It’s not to an airline’s advantage to carry any more than the minimum requirement: more fuel means a heavier plane, and a heavier plane gets worse mileage.

But there’s a helpful loophole. A plane can carry less fuel and simply file a “minimum fuel declaration.”

I did contact the FAA and asked about the frequency of “minimal fuel declaration” filings for flights arriving in Honolulu, but they have not yet responded.

American Airlines 123 (click for larger)

In the meantime, check out this flight path for American Airlines flight 123 from Dallas/Ft. Worth, originally scheduled to arrive at Honolulu at 2:45 p.m. on September 4, but which finally got here at 6:21 p.m.  Why the 216 minute delay?

While heading to Honolulu over the Pacific, the pilot decided there wasn’t enough fuel to make it safely to Honolulu! So he diverted to Los Angeles to refuel. Logically, if the pilot was aware of conditions needing more fuel earlier, the plane would have landed directly at LAX instead of continuing out to sea. But there was this plane, looking at a couple of thousand miles of water, and deciding it was better to go back while it could. Was the tank less than full when it left DFW?

The actual decision was reached as follows:


(data from, map from )

Now, what would have happened if the plane had progressed farther along over the Pacific and couldn’t return to LAX?

I’ll follow up with the FAA to get data on “minimum fuel declarations,” but in the meantime I thought you’d like to know that your airplane may, indeed, not have enough gas to get you back to Honolulu.


Nice work, Larry. Did the FAA seem like they were going to drag their feet in handing over the records?

No, just no reply.

If I want the info I guess I can try a FOIA request, but before that I'm going to try calling around some more.

Amazingly, I just had this happen with Allegiant Air flight 613. Thankfully, we weren't over water when it happened. I just didn't think that pilots would play it that close but I guess in the age of fuel economy and airline's low profit margins that they're trying to cut corners wherever they can.

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