A dodgy batch of aviation fuel has thrown a spanner in the works for airlines trying to navigate a busy summer schedule.
Airlines were told to limit fuel use from Auckland until December 18, after the delivery of tainted jet fuel from Z Energy.
This morning, American Airlines was the first carrier to make a change of schedule due to the shortage of fuel at Auckland Airport.
According to a Christchurch International spokesperson, the US carrier will be diverting its flights to Dallas via Christchurch for a refuelling stop before heading to the US.
American Airlines was contacted for comment.
On Wednesday, the fuel suppliers using the Channel Terminal Services set their fuel traffic light to “BLACK”, indicating temporary fuel rationing to airport customers.
With new fuel until the end of the week it’s likely a number of airlines will be looking for some creative solutions to cover the 25 per cent shortfall of aviation fuel.
How does fuel rationing work?
This year has seen plenty of international airports face fuel shortages. In October, Cape Town airport in South Africa introduced fuel rationing after a missing shipment of fuel from a tanker, affecting services from United and KLM.
The second largest airport in South Africa was able to muddle through, giving domestic and mid-haul flights half their normal fuel orders to keep reserves for longer international routes.
Unfortunately due to New Zealand’s isolated geography in the South Pacific, the demands of its airlines are equally unique. With alternate airports few and far between for fuel stops, the Board of Airline Representatives New Zealand says that the shortfall brings unique challenges.
“This is a reminder that we need to improve our reserve fuel greatly but also our management,” said BARNZ Executive Director Cath O’Brien.
The affected fuel was for customers of Z Energy. However with most airlines spreading their demands across the three main suppliers - Z, Mobil, and BP - and distributed through a ‘Joint User Hydrant’ - the shortfall is widefelt.
In September 2017 the airport experienced an even more dire shortage of jet fuel when a supply line to Auckland burst, cancelling over 100 flights.
This resulted in a 65 per cent shortfall, versus the current 25 per cent shortage.
“Allocation is made based on forward bookings by the airlines,” says O’Brien and disruptions to schedules would “not be unexpected.”
This fuel rationing status is only applied at Auckland Airport and is not affecting other airports across New Zealand.
How do airlines navigate a fuel shortage?
Tanking Flights are when planes arrive at an airport carrying extra fuel. These are possible for short-haul, domestic and Tasman routes.
“For long-haul routes this is not an option, which take off full and arrive near empty to New Zealand,” says O’Brien.
Rerouting planes to add refuel stops is another option, as American Airlines have decided to do.
However O’Brien says that these are avoided by airlines where possible.
“Tech stops are complex and costly and would take longer than a couple of days to organise.”
For international services, these will require applying for approval from foreign civil aviation bodies to add refuel stops, and add extra complexity and reliance on additional airports.
They can have knock-on effects for schedules and for passengers with connecting flights.
Offloading cargo in favour of passengers to reduce load is another option for airlines to weigh up.
Most airlines will choose to offload cargo rather than passengers, particularly around Christmas.
“Capacity is very close to full this time of year,” says O’Brien. Offloading passengers will only cause bigger headaches as there are a lack of alternate flights to move them onto, and is very disruptive for travel plans.
If airlines have to make decisions for the purpose of saving fuel, it will be cargo arriving late rather than travellers.