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 The Brancatelli File

joe RUNNING ON EMPTY

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

May 13, 1999 -- Just when you think your life on the road couldn't get any crueler, there is more outrage and more proof that the airlines are run by rapacious clowns who don't even care about our safety.

Click back to my April Fool's column where we discussed the all-too-real comments of Continental Airlines chief executive Gordon Bethune. Anxious to torpedo the toothless "passenger rights" bills that cropped up in Congress after Northwest Airlines stranded thousands of passengers on snow-clogged runways in Detroit, Bethune uttered what I then assumed was a sarcastic comment.

"Government does not need to give airlines incentive to do the right thing," Bethune sniffed. "You don't need to pass a law to prevent us from running out of fuel in flight."

Well, guess what, fellow travelers? It turns out we do need exactly such a law.

Reports surfaced this week that there's at least one international airline that makes it a practice to carry too little fuel, routinely jeopardizing the safety of its passengers and untold thousands on the ground. The carrier in question? Malaysia Airlines, which, just for the record, is one of the projected members of the grand Wings alliance that Bethune is cooking up with Northwest, KLM and Alitalia.

Even as the potentates of the protean Wings alliance were in New York on Monday unveiling their plans for world domination, word was filtering back from London about Malaysia Airlines' "minimal fuel" policy. The program came to light when a MAS 747-400 from Kuala Lumpur arrived at Heathrow Airport two weeks ago with fuel reserves far below the safety minimum.

According to reports in the Times of London, the dangerously under-fueled MAS flight crossed the British coast over Essex and flew directly over London and its crowded suburbs. After the flight landed, ground crews noticed the plane's fuel gauges showed empty. Subsequent checks revealed that the tanks contained only about three tons of fuel, which the Times story described as the equivalent of a car running on a pint of gasoline.

With so little fuel, the plane would not have been able to land safely had its first approach to Heathrow failed. A report by a British government-funded safety agency noted that the plane did not even have enough fuel to divert to another airport if necessary. "The aircraft…had so little fuel that even a slight delay could have resulted in its plunging into a densely populated area," the Times story noted.

Had this incident been a matter of isolated human error, we could have all breathed a sigh of relief and thanked the gods for our good fortunes. But Aviation Daily reported Tuesday that Malaysia Airlines pilots have been under orders for more than two years to carry minimal fuel to save on costs. Worse, the trade newsletter reported, the near-disaster on the MAS flight coming into Heathrow was "nothing new." Malaysia and other airlines routinely carry less fuel than safety regulations require and "ground staff attending to the aircraft keep it quiet."

Malaysia Airlines officials have steadfastly refused to comment on the London incident or its fuel policy. But it's not hard to divine the "logic" behind such a potentially deadly program. Jet fuel is heavy--the tanks on a 747-400 can carry 180 tons worth--and the more fuel a plane carries, the more fuel it burns as it flies. The more fuel burned, the higher the airline's costs. For a financially strapped carrier such as MAS, saving a few bucks by carrying less fuel must seem like an acceptable trade-off.

And that's what's wrong with air travel now. Northwest thinks it's okay to strand thousands of passengers on runways in Detroit. Malaysia Airlines thinks it's fine to skimp on fuel. Delta Air Lines permits a nameless apparachik to delay a flight for 26 minutes to pull paying passengers out of first class so the chief financial officer's kids can fly up front. They all think it's good management to take strikes and work actions rather than share years of record profits with their employees.

I don't like the prospect of government regulation much. But I like the thought of heading into the next millennium with a pack of robber barons running wild even less.

It's time to admit that the way we deregulated the airlines in 1978 was misguided. It's time to accept that two decades of mergers, acquisitions, code-sharing, alliances and runaway fares for business travelers have made a shambles out of the commercial-aviation system. It's time to find a better way to manage our air affairs.

Left to their own devices, the airlines are now, figuratively and literally, running on empty.

This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.

Copyright © 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.