Kevin Garrison discusses the minimum-fuel advisory and when to use it.
December 4, 2000
It's very easy to sit comfortably reading a magazine article and be judgmental
of pilots who have run out fuel. Of course, the most obvious example that comes
to mind is the Avianca wreck on Long Island in January, 1990. If you've ever flown
into a congested area like the New York TCA, you know how a bad day can
suddenly get much worse.
When the weather is really bad in the northeast, delays have a way of
compounding. The first hold is rarely the last and it may be many minutes or
even an hour or two before you get a turn at the approach. Then what happens if
You could spend days talking about the best time to bug-out of a situation like
that. Personally, I have much more conservative habits than other people when
it comes to having lots of fuel on board.
Unlike a lot of general aviation operations, an airliner rarely leaves the gate
with full fuel tanks unless that's exactly what's needed to complete the
flight. In the first place, we could never get off the ground with that much
weight and in the second place, the bean counters would have a fit. It costs
money to carry all that extra fuel weight. Although we never leave with
insufficient fuel we always leave with just what we need and very little more.
Although fuel is calculated closely, we can always ask for and get more if we
want it. At least on my airline this is never questioned.
If, despite all that planing, fuel runs low and things aren't looking too good,
declaring an emergency is certainly an option. Airline types don't do it
lightly, though. Even though very few certificates are pulled because an
emergency was declared, a professional pilot has a little more riding on the
decision to do so than does a private pilot. If we declare and the whole world
finds out it was because we screwed up, we can find ourselves on television or
maybe even unemployed. If they're able, most professional pilots would prefer
a middle ground between death and dishonor.
So what do you do when you're
concerned about having enough fuel to get safely on the ground but you're not
to the point of having to declare an emergency and risk all the hassles that
can entail? There is a step you can take that's short of a genuine fuel
emergency. It's called a "minimum-fuel advisory" and it has been around for
quite some time. Here, verbatim is what the AIM has to say about it: "As
a pilot you should advise ATC of your minimum fuel status when your fuel supply
has reached a state where, upon reaching your destination, you cannot accept
any undue delay." It continues by saying that "be aware this is not an
emergency situation but merely an advisory that indicates an emergency
situation is possible should any undue delay occur." The AIM goes on to say
that a minimum fuel advisory doesn't imply a need for traffic priority but if
the fuel state suggests priority to ensure a safe landing, you should declare
an fuel emergency and report the fuel remaining in minutes.
The AIM is similarly specific on how the controller is supposed to respond.
"When an aircraft declares a state of minimum fuel, relay this information to
the facility to whom control jurisdiction is transferred. And be alert for any
occurrence which might delay the aircraft."
Okay, what does it all mean? If you are number seven in the hold and you call
minimum fuel, does that move you up in line? It really depends on the
controller and the facility you're dealing with, but probably it won't. In the
big terminals, I've never heard an airliner declare a minimum fuel state and
get moved up in line. There's usually an alternate near by (at least in jet
terms) and the low-fuel airliner is directed there to refuel. General aviation
aircraft have to do the same, although their alternates are usually closer.
At smaller airports, where there's little or no traffic, declaring minimum fuel
might expedite things, if only to shortcut normal procedures a little.
Remember though that it's up to you to decide when it's time to go somewhere
else for gas. The controllers are busy enough and after all, you're the boss
of your airplane, not them. Telling the world that you are in a minimum fuel
state is still very important if for no other reason than to get your own head
on straight. It will get you thinking in the right direction if you do have to
declare a full-blown emergency. It will also clue ATC to the fact that an
emergency might be forthcoming.
Whatever happens, if you are truly worried about getting the thing on the
ground with the engines still running, declare the DAG-GUM EMERGENCY! No
kidding. There's no shame in landing with 30 minutes of fuel on board after you
declared an emergency. Thirty minutes of fuel can look awfully small on the
gauges when you're still in the clouds. A minimum fuel advisory is the first
step in negotiations with your controller. Once ATC knows that fuel is a
factor they will clue you in better to the delay situation. For example, having
the field is closed due to fog that isn't supposed to burn-off for three hours
is quite a bit different than closing the field for a few minutes to change the
active runway and approach. Don't be afraid to ask questions. It's your butt
riding around in the sky and your reputation if you run out of gas and have to
dead stick the thing in.