Hard hit by sky-high fuel prices, airlines are removing ashtrays from planes, getting rid of extra pillows and using every other trick they can think of to decrease weight and save on fuel.
Jet fuel typically represents an airline's second-highest cost behind labor and is now selling at 75 percent above its midsummer levels. That, combined with sluggish demand for air travel, is expected to create more than $1 billion in losses for the industry this year.
As a result, most airlines have accelerated the purchase of newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft and embarked on a search for any other means of making themselves leaner and lighter.
"We're looking at limiting flying in certain areas, cutting back on the frequency of flights and putting 17 of our less fuel-efficient aircraft on the ground at the end of the month," said Art Kent of Continental Airlines. In addition, since new prohibitions on smoking on most domestic flights have made ashtrays useless, the Houston-based airline is removing them from the aircraft.
That can take 50 pounds off a Boeing 737, said Kent.
Virtually all of the airlines have taken such steps as taxiing on one engine and encouraging pilots to fly at altitudes that minimize the amount of fuel used. American Airlines and USAir say they also benefit from the fact that their aircraft are unpainted. Paint can add approximately 400 pounds to a big jet like a DC-10, according to American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith. USAir estimates that the unpainted aircraft save the carrier at least 794,000 gallons of jet fuel a year.
Airline officials complain that jet fuel prices have risen faster than the cost of gasoline because the oil industry is sensitive to the political consequences of handing consumers their fair share of the burden. Arguing that they have been disproportionately injured, the airlines are trying to persuade the administration to release oil from the federal Strategic Petroleum Reserve that the airlines could in turn trade for jet fuel.
In addition, the airlines are lobbying for changes in the air traffic control system that would let them fly alternate routes on long flights when wind conditions would make a standard route less fuel efficient. "There can be a 30-minute difference between an optimal and a fixed route" during which large quantities of fuel are burned, said Don Bull, Pan American World Airways system director-flight control.
So far, he said, the industry has been disappointed by the Federal Aviation Administration's response. "We are not getting a sense of urgency out of the FAA that we need to take extraordinary measures to make the system more fuel efficient."
In the meantime, airlines are reminding employees of long-standing fuel conservation measures and looking for new savings. Northwest Airlines plugs its planes into electrical generators at the Memphis airport to avoid using jet fuel to operate the planes' air conditioning and electricity while they are on the ground. On planes that aren't 100 percent booked, Midway Airlines seats passengers in a way designed to produce the most optimal levels of fuel consumption.
"We estimate we can save as much as 2 percent of the fuel burn on those flights," said Sandra Allen. Midway estimates it will pay an additional $11 million for fuel this year, owing mostly to the price increases since Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.
And the search continues. "We've looked very closely at any cost we can cut or eliminate until the fuel crunch is over," said Daphne Dicino of America West. "It's going to be a lean year."