Westbound flights in December faced winds almost twice as fast compared with the average over the past decade, forcing 43 flights out of 1,100 to land and refuel, said Megan McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based airline. Only 12 jets needed fuel stops a year earlier, she said today by telephone.
“There have been fuel stops on some flights we have flown all along, and it does continue into January because the winds have continued into January,” McCarthy said. “We’re looking at this very closely.”
Flying into stiff winds slows a plane’s progress over the ground, possibly eating into the minimum fuel reserve of 45 minutes of travel time beyond a designated diversion airport, which could force a fuel stop. December winds blew at about 54 miles (87 kilometers) per hour, compared with the 28 mph historical average.
A “handful” of December fuel stops were planned before jets left Europe, McCarthy said. The airports typically used for refueling are in eastern Canadian cities such as Gander, Newfoundland, and Goose Bay, Labrador, or Boston, she said.
The North Atlantic’s prevailing winds come from the west, which means that flights to the U.S. from Europe already are usually longer than eastbound trips. Newer, more-efficient planes have reduced the need for scheduled fill-ups, which were more common in the early days of jet aviation.
Flights to Newark
All of the December stops were for Boeing 757-200 jets flown by United Continental’s Continental unit on routes such as Stuttgart, Germany, to Newark, New Jersey, which is about 4,540 miles, and the planes depart with full fuel tanks, McCarthy said.
The plane carries 175 passengers and has a maximum range of about 4,450 miles, according to Boeing’s website. McCarthy said winglets and lighter carbon brakes were installed years ago to minimize fuel burn. The winds also have affected new service from Washington Dulles to Paris and Amsterdam, she said.
United Airlines, whose parent merged with Continental in 2010, flies those routes with bigger, longer-range Boeing 767 and 777 jets, making fuel stops for those planes unnecessary.
The U.S. Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General in 2008 responded to a query from U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, about increased reports of planes landing at Newark because of low fuel.
The department said such fuel declarations had increased for flights into Newark, though “there were no instances of aircraft landing with fuel levels below those required” by the Federal Aviation Administration. Two-thirds of the declarations were on international flights, and the FAA would review the matter, the department said.
The FAA said today in an e-mailed statement that it “is aware that United Airlines aircraft have made more unscheduled fuel stops this year than last year and we are looking into the issue.”
The Wall Street Journal reported United Continental’s increasing unscheduled fuel stops earlier today.
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