Airlines Trimming Weight to Curb Appetite for Fuel

Carriers have stopped topping off the fuel tank of aircraft before takeoff, and they are tougher about heavy bags, enforcing rules that call for extra fees.

Every United pilot and dispatcher was sent to training this year on ways to cut fuel usage. Other airlines have sent their pilots to training as well.

"That's a large expense, but we feel we're running a more educated operation," Burns said.

High fuel costs have been the bane of the industry. Only one large carrier, Southwest Airlines, is expected to end the year with a profit, thanks in part to fuel hedges it purchased during years when prices were lower.

But even Southwest faces added pressure on its bottom line because of higher prices for the portion of its fuel needs that are not hedged. Through the first nine months of the year, Dallas-based Southwest spent about $ 220 million more on fuel than during the same period in 2004.

United Airlines has said higher fuel prices will be one of the major challenges it faces when it exits bankruptcy protection, a move expected early next year.

Fuel costs are unlikely to drop next year, according to industry analysts.

"As long as oil is at $ 55 a barrel, fuel prices remain a factor," said Ray Neidl of Calyon Securities. "The fuel-usage cut is really incremental. It's not a huge thing. They're doing a commendable job, but they can't change things overnight."

The airlines' efforts are important, but they are not enough to overcome the dramatic increase in fuel costs, said Betsy Snyder, airline analyst for Standard & Poor's.

"Obviously every little bit helps, but that's about it," she said.

Fuel prices will continue to challenge the industry in 2006, she said.

"There's only so much they can do," Snyder said. "They can raise prices, which they have been trying to do. They can reduce costs. But fuel is outpacing labor as an expense these days."

Even if fuel prices begin to come down dramatically at some point, it's unlikely airlines will abandon their new efforts at conservation, Chealander said. More consideration now is given to such factors as tailwinds and headwinds when calculating how much fuel is needed and how fast the engine needs to run, and that won't change, he said.

Traditionally, he and other pilots weren't too worried about how much fuel they burned, only reaching their destination. That way of looking at things has been altered in the last year.

"So we've really had a philosophical change with crew members, teaching them the time value of how much fuel is used," Burns said. "What really matters is how long can you stay in the air."


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