The Weight Factor

May 16 2008 The Weight Factor BY sgf-admin TAGS Airlines


"Airlines have reduced the amount of spare fuel on airplanes in a money-saving effort that is raising concerns among some pilots and a government watchdog."


That's the lede sentence in a story today from USA Today. What the story lacks is perspective. It's common industry knowledge that airlines have been asking pilots to conserve fuel—and it's been going on for sometime.


I recently talked to an airline pilot who was telling me some of the different tricks of fuel conservation. But the main point of his conversation was that the airlines EXPECT pilots to conserve fuel.


The weight of an airplane, and the role is plays in the business of airlines, is little understood by either the media or the public. Let's start with a couple of obvious points: 1) if a plane is overweight it can't fly safely. 2) There are three main weight variables that an airline deals with on every flight: the weight of people, the weight of fuel, the weight of baggage.


How does this affect you? Here's an example: pilots calculate the combined weight of these three variables before take off. If the math says the plane is overweight, the airline might have three passengers (and their luggage) get off the plane. But there are other, less obvious, things that this math affects...


Here's an example: for the past few years the airlines have mostly flown regional jets (RJs) into markets our size (they've done this for economic reasons that you're about to get a taste of). RJs are small; usually 40, 50, or (if you're lucky) 70 seats. The fact that most of our service is on RJs makes it extremely hard for us to convince an airline to provide direct service to either coast. Why? In a word...weight.


Suppose we're talking about a hypothetical flight between Springfield and Los Angeles on a 50-seat RJ. To fly that far the plane has to carry A LOT of fuel—so much fuel that 50 people, plus their baggage, makes the plane overweight. So what does the captain do? He might make ten people and their bags get off. Now here's where the math gets nitty-gritty. With only 40 paying passengers onboard the flight can't make a profit.


Doesn't airline math make your head hurt?!

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