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As they were waiting to board their cross-country American Airlines flight, passengers watched from the terminal as fuel poured out of their aircraft’s wing. Passenger Rebecca Morgan caught the incident on film and documented the odyssey that the flight’s passengers went through in the aftermath:

Airport emergency responders scrambled to the scene in case they were needed, but didn’t need to deploy water or foam to the spilled fuel:

What Happened

While the situation looks concerning — and is obviously not something anyone wants to see — a little context helps explain what’s happening and why it’s not as bad as it looks. First, jet fuel is flammable, but it takes a lot to make it burn. You could drop a lit match in it safely.

Second, as confirmed by American Airlines, the fueling contractor inadvertently overfilled the aircraft tanks. Aircraft are designed to handle this situation by rerouting the fuel through overflow valves and out of the wings as we see in the video.

As this is a foreseeable situation, airlines and airports have a plan for how to deal with it. And an American Airlines spokesperson confirmed “the fueling contractor cleaned up the spill, in accordance with airport policies and procedures.”

While the aircraft surely needed cleaning up and some level of inspection, this aircraft wasn’t damaged by the incident and returned to service shortly later. The A321 flew from Philadelphia to Phoenix (PHX), instead of its original destination in Los Angeles (LAX), departing just less than five hours after the leak began.

Communication Issues

Although the situation seems to be mainly the fault of the fuel contractor, passengers expressed their frustration with American Airlines poor communication through the ordeal. Matching up flight data with Rebecca’s tweets shows a rather laughable timeline of events:

  • At 12:36pm, as fuel poured out the wing of the flight’s aircraft, American Airlines bumped the departure time from 1:00pm to 1:15pm.
  • At 12:54pm with emergency response vehicles still on the scene and a pool of fuel surrounding the aircraft, the departure time was bumped from 1:15pm to 1:30pm.

  • 1:08pm: the departure time would still show 1:30pm as workers seemed unsure about how to begin the cleanup process:

  • The 1:30pm departure time would remain until 1:34pm when the departure time was pushed to 2:00pm, still using the same aircraft. By this point, the fuel leak was starting to be cleaned up, but there was a long way to go before this aircraft would be used:

  • At 1:35pm, American Airlines assigned a new aircraft to the flight and bumped the departure time to 2:20pm.
  • At 1:39pm, the departure gate was changed from A18 to C27, forcing the flight passengers to scramble across the airport to board the new aircraft. American Airlines typically starts boarding 30 minutes before departure, meaning boarding would begin approximately 11 minutes after this change was coded into the system. According to American Airlines’ app, the walk from A18 to C27 takes 19 minutes.
  • By 2:04pm, Rebecca’s update shows that most passengers have made it to the new gate, but boarding hasn’t begun:

  • At 2:26pm, the flight still hasn’t loaded for it’s 2:20pm departure and Rebecca reports that there’s been no information shared (also, note that jets do not run on “gasoline,” but that’s not the point here):

  • 2:31pm: at 11 minutes after the stated departure time, the departure time is changed from 2:20pm to 2:30pm
  • 2:35pm: departure time is changed from 2:30pm to 3:00pm.
  • 3:12pm: departure time is changed from 3:00pm to 3:10pm and then from 3:10pm to 3:25pm.
  • At 3:32pm, Rebecca updates that passengers are being instructed to get off of the new aircraft without a stated reason:

  • 3:37pm: departure time is changed from 3:25pm to 3:35pm.
  • 3:39pm: departure time is changed from 3:35pm to 3:50pm.
  • 3:55pm: the flight is assigned to another aircraft. Departure time remains 3:50pm.
  • 4:01pm: departure time is changed from 3:50pm to 4:30pm.
  • 4:42pm: departure time is changed from 4:30pm to 4:40pm.
  • 4:56pm: departure time is changed from 4:40pm to 4:50pm.
  • 5:01pm: departure time is changed from 4:50pm to 5:00pm.
  • 5:07pm: departure time is changed from 5:00pm to 5:40pm.
  • 5:30pm: actual gate departure

I’ll take AA at its word that its fuel contractors were responsible for the fuel leak incident. However, the lack of communication and unrealistic departure delays during the situation are within the control of the airline. And this isn’t an isolated incident. I fly on American Airlines enough to know that these unrealistic rolling departure delays are a persistent problem — and one that AA needs to address.

Featured image by the author

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