Fuelling the Debate: Safety vs. Profitability

The recent incident involving three Ryanair aircraft forced to make emergency landings in Spain due to low fuel levels is sparking an important debate about passenger safety. Fears that cost-cutting practices could be jeopardising passenger safety are becoming more and more tangible. 

On 26 July three Ryanair planes were compelled to land in Valencia under emergency procedure due to dwindling fuel reserves. All three Ryanair flights had been diverted from Madrid due to severe thunderstorms over the capital. After having circled above Valencia the pilots had to call mayday emergencies because they were running low on fuel. Despite assurances that passengers were at no point put at risk and the company operates in full compliance with European safety standards, the incident is highlighting the potential impact of the economic downturn on passenger safety. 
“There are a lot of issues that don’t directly impact the passengers as long as a company places safety as its top priority”, commented ECA Secretary General, Philip von Schöppenthau, in an interview for France24. “[However], safety sometimes takes a backseat to the current economic climate”.
With fuel prices at record levels and stiff competition on the market, companies are looking for various ways to ensure profitability. In line with this, worrying practices have been spreading across the entire airline industry. The ECA has been alerted about companies promoting flying with limited fuel reserves or even developing fuel savings incentive schemes for pilots. The less fuel used, the bigger the incentive. In other cases, various kinds of pressure are exerted on the pilots to take as little extra fuel as possible, thereby limiting the commander’s authority to take safety decisions independently. 
The European Commission Regulation on ‘Air Operations’ is clearly outlining a fuel policy for the purpose of flight planning and in-flight replanning to ensure that every flight carries sufficient fuel for the planned operation and reserves to cover deviations from the planned operation.
The regulation specifies that the pre-flight calculation of usable fuel required for a flight includes:  taxi fuel; trip fuel; reserve fuel consisting of contingency fuel, alternate fuel (if a destination alternate aerodrome is required), additional fuel (if required by the type of operation); and extra fuel if required by the commander of the flight. Yet, this last point is the one raising the most concerns due to its non-binding character. 
While the practices of promoting flying with less extra fuel do conform to law, they are also raising questions whether complying with the minimum standards of the EU Commission Regulation is sufficient to provide passenger safety. Promoting fuel saving might well be helping to maintain profit margins, but it can also drastically narrow the safety margins. The three Ryanair incidents provide an opportunity to find an answer to those questions and ensure that pilots are free in their decisions and passenger safety is never compromised.