U.S. Airlines Wrestle with Fuel Shortages

 - July 27, 2021, 12:03 PM
A shortage of space in pipelines and fuel tanker trucks has contributed to low Jet-A inventories at some airports in the western U.S. (Photo: Air bp)

U.S. airlines are struggling to accommodate surging demand for air travel as a lack of available pipeline space for jet fuel and a shortage of fuel trucks and drivers have led to low fuel inventories at some airports, primarily smaller ones in the western part of the country. According to trade group Airlines for America (A4A), proactive measures by members include carrying extra fuel uploaded at unaffected origin airports on flights to supplement the fuel supply at destination airports suffering from a shortage. “We have been and continue to be in communication with federal authorities and pipeline operators to address this jet fuel capacity issue,” A4A said in a statement.

Jet fuel gets to airports primarily via underground pipelines. With the demand for air travel plummeting 96 percent at the onset of the pandemic, U.S. passenger carriers put 3,200 aircraft, more than half the fleet, in storage. Flying many fewer flights required far less jet fuel, which resulted in much lower volumes of jet fuel shipments through the pipelines—about 70 percent less than normal in the initial months. Because the amount of fuel a pipeline customer can ship is based on how much fuel the customer shipped in the preceding 12-month period, airlines cannot boost their fuel shipments through the multi-product pipelines. Those pipelines also transport gasoline, diesel, heating oil, and other fuels, all of which compete for a finite amount of “line space.”

Meanwhile, along with a shortage of fuel truck drivers, a large number of wildfires in the U.S. have forced the rerouting of many of those fuel trucks to support firefighting efforts.

Resulting flight cancellations come as airlines around the country continue to struggle with labor shortages, forcing American Airlines, for example, to cut its flight schedules by 1 percent at the end of June. The need for more pilots has caused pilot training bottlenecks across the industry, as every retirement or “early out” at a major airline results in six pilot-seat movements.