One Step Short of Declaring
Kevin Garrison discusses the minimum-fuel advisory and when to use it.
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 miss?
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.