Jetliner’s Low-on-Fuel Landing Mystery Triggers FAA Review

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The Federal Aviation Administration is looking into why an Allegiant Airlines pilot declared a plane to be so low on fuel it needed to make an emergency landing last week in Fargo, North Dakota.

The incident left FAA officials puzzling over how the Boeing Co. MD-80 could have been on empty, because jetliners must carry enough kerosene to fly well beyond their destination. Adding to the confusion: Allegiant’s flight operations center told Fargo controllers the aircraft had the necessary extra fuel, said Elizabeth Cory, an FAA spokeswoman.

“We follow up with the airlines on all such events,” said Lynn Lunsford, an FAA spokesman. “Any further action depends on the circumstances.”

Flight 426 was bound for Fargo’s Hector International Airport on July 23 but was more than an hour late taking off from Las Vegas, the FAA said Tuesday. That meant the jet arrived during a temporary airspace closing for a pre-air show rehearsal by the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels aerobatics team, a disruption that had been promoted months in advance, the FAA said.

When controllers said there would be an opening to land in 20 minutes, Flight 426’s pilot said that wasn’t an option, replying, “Yeah, I don’t have 20 minutes.” A suggested diversion to Grand Forks, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) away, also was rejected.

‘Bingo Fuel’

“Listen, we’re at bingo fuel here in probably three to four minutes,” the pilot said, according to an air-traffic control recording from posted on aviation-news website “Bingo fuel” is military slang for flying on empty.

Flight 426 carried 144 passengers and six crew members. Allegiant declined to comment on specifics because of its own ongoing investigation into the landing, said Laura Billiter, a spokeswoman for the Las Vegas-based carrier, a unit of Allegiant Travel Co.

“We are coordinating with the FAA and the airport to investigate all channels of communication regarding the flight and the circumstances leading to the declaration of an emergency,” Billiter said.

Notices about the Fargo airspace closing began in December, the FAA’s Cory said. In addition, the FAA issued an advisory for pilots 72 hours in advance of the shutdown, she said. Pilots are required to review such notices before flying.

According to the air-traffic recording, the controller told the pilot that Allegiant’s flight dispatchers should have known about the Fargo disruption months earlier. The pilot responded: “OK, yeah. We’ll follow up on that.”

FAA rules stipulate that U.S. commercial aircraft must carry enough fuel to complete their flight plan as well as to reach a pre-designated diversion airport, plus a reserve to fly at least 45 minutes beyond that.

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