CHICAGO - American Airlines is aggressively attempting to reduce the amount of fuel remaining on board when a plane lands.
But the cost-saving strategy is under fire from pilots who see their decision-making authority being undercut and from experts concerned about the affect on passenger safety.
Other airlines also are changing fuel-load policy.
Commuter carriers that fly most of the nation's regional jets, the fastest-growing segment in the industry, warrant a particular focus, according to experts. The commuter airlines face the strongest pressures to curb operating costs, and their flight crews rank among the least experienced professional pilots.
Although no one is warning that the fuel-conservation effort could put commercial aircraft in danger of running out of fuel in flight, the issue is whether databases to help the airline control one of its largest expenses should outweigh the judgment of American's front-line staff with years of experience.
"We feel that we have been so scientifically precise about what we need on a given flight that we want the captains to trust us," American spokesman Tim Wagner said. "Too much extra fuel doesn't provide an extra margin of safety, but it does take money off our bottom line."
Federal Aviation Administration regulations require that a plane's captain and flight dispatcher have joint responsibility for determining how much fuel to load onto an aircraft, although the captain ultimately determines whether a plane can be safely flown.
But in a May 24 letter to pilots obtained by the Chicago Tribune, Bart Roberts, American's flight operations chief, made it clear that pilots are expected to "accept the flight plan as fueled by the dispatcher."
Pilots who think they'll need more fuel must make their case in writing.
Airline officials said American planes are landing with enough fuel to fly an additional 93 minutes on average. The goal is to whittle the average down over the course of a year, they said. Extra fuel is always allocated during bad weather, they said, and to account for the probability that planes will be placed in holding patterns near congested airports, among other factors.
American's policy to have a minimum of 65 minutes of fuel left at the end of a flight is well above the FAA requirement for a minimum of 45 minutes of fuel remaining on domestic arrivals and 30 minutes on international arrivals.