WASHINGTON – The pilots union for U.S. Airways said Wednesday the airline is pressuring pilots to use less fuel than they feel is safe in order to save money.
U.S. Airways Captain James Ray, a spokesman for the U.S. Airline Pilots Association, which represents the airline's 5,200 pilots, said eight senior pilots and the union have filed complaints with the Federal Aviation Administration.
The union also paid for a full-page ad in Wednesday's USA Today addressed to "our valued passengers." The ad accuses the airline of "a program of intimidation to pressure your captain to reduce fuel loads."
Ray said soaring jet fuel prices have sent all the airlines scrambling to find ways to cut the weight of airliners because the heavier the plane, the more fuel the plane burns. U.S. Airways, based in Tempe, Ariz., has recently removed movie players, redesigned its meal carts and replaced glassware with plastic to cut weight.
Jet fuel has surpassed labor as the airline industry's greatest expense.
But U.S. Airways recently crossed the line when it ordered eight pilots who requested "an extra 10 to 15 minutes worth of fuel" to attend training sessions, or "check rides," that could put their pilot licenses in jeopardy, Ray said. The pilots were supposed to report for their training sessions Wednesday, he said.
"We feel they're trying to set an example," Ray said. "Captains shouldn't be intimidated into thinking, 'If I say I need this fuel, they may send me for a check ride.' ... Cutting peanuts off the plane, that's one thing. But cutting a captain's fuel level below his comfort, that's another thing."
U.S. Airways spokesman Morgan Durrant said the decision to bring in the eight pilots for extra training was not meant to be punitive. "That's totally not true," he said.
During the past few years, the carrier has required its planes to carry enough fuel to pad their flight times by 60 to 90 minutes, Durrant said.
"These eight pilots have routinely been above the 60 to 90 minute range. It just behooves us as a company to talk to these guys, figure out what they're seeing that we're not," Durrant said.
FAA regulations require aircraft to carry enough fuel to reach their destination and an alternate destination, plus 45 minutes worth of fuel, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said. Also, pilots have the final authority on whether their flight should have extra fuel.
Brown said she is unaware of any specific complaints filed by U.S. Airways pilots or their union, but FAA has been monitoring reports of "minimum fuel loads" at some airports.
"We don't see any evidence right now that there are violations of the regulation," Brown said.
U.S. Airways has studied how much fuel its planes really need to carry, Durrant said. "The heavier an aircraft is, the more fuel it burns, and one of the heaviest portions of an aircraft can be fuel," he said.
U.S. Airways is also buying more fuel efficient aircraft and cutting inefficient routes from its network. Still, an average roundtrip flight costs about $299 worth of fuel per passenger, company officials said.