United Miscalculates Fuel For Hawaii Flight

Updated 4/6/15. Very interesting comments (including from a passenger on that flight), both below and many on Facebook. On the statement from United Airlines about the problem being excessive headwinds: Headwinds on Hawaii flights are typically encountered traveling to Hawaii, not from Hawaii. At least that’s our experience in hundreds of flights. More will be revealed.

Also read: Spring, Summer and Fall Hawaii Deals From $189

United Airlines flight 724 was forced to return to Honolulu after nearly two hours of flight on Sunday. That after the crew realized that they did not have enough fuel to safely reach their destination in San Francisco. The obvious question in our minds, how can such a thing happen?

Flight 724 on Sunday used a Boeing 777-200 (see image below), which is typically capable of making the 2,393 nautical mile flight with ease. The aircraft is in fact rated for a much longer minimum range of 5,235 nautical miles given adequate fuel. That minimum range for the aircraft being more than double the actual distance of this flight.

So what went wrong?

United Airlines has characterized the issue as one caused by excessive headwinds. Passengers were apparently not impressed by the incident or that explanation.

Aircraft weight, winds and temperature are certainly all factors. The most important issue, however, must have been how much fuel was calculated to be needed and was then loaded at the Honolulu point of flight origin.

Whatever went wrong, it was troubling for the 260 passengers returning from vacation, as well as expensive for United Airlines. Passengers were fed and housed in a Honolulu hotel overnight before again making the trip to California on Monday. They arrived in San Francisco after 23 1/2 hours. In addition to its other unanticipated expenses, United will also be providing unspecified compensation in terms of mileage credit and by other means.

Running out of fuel is very dangerous. Most recently, last year the FAA investigated an incident in which an Allegiant Air plane nearly ran out of fuel and had to make an emergency landing.

You can see UA 724 details below, as provided by Flight Radar 24.

UA 724

Were you on board UA flight 724 on Sunday?

As a Facebook fan said: “Fill it up! Don’t just put in $5. #DOH

14 thoughts on “United Miscalculates Fuel For Hawaii Flight”

  1. Scary to have been a passenger on that flight. We had the opposite experience on an Allegiant flight from Las Vegas to Fresno. There was a gate change after we were given our boarding passes and gate information. So…the plane at the new gate was apparently fueled up for a much much longer flight because we ended up sitting on the plane for at least an hour while six or eight workers with a fuel truck tried to figure out how to syphon off about half of the fuel. Apparently, if they did not do so the plane would have been too heavy to land in Fresno. But not calculating enough fuel when flying over a wide expanse of nothing but sea is extremely concerning.

  2. From a pilot…

    Some facts here: Pilots carefully compute the amount of fuel needed to reach a destination based on weight, distance, weather, and other factors. Headwinds are a huge factor, and can increase the fuel required for the same distance by 25% or more.

    There’s no option to “fill it up” like a car, because most planes cannot fly with a full load of passengers, baggage, and full fuel. Plus the extra weight of unneeded fuel can greatly increase the needed runway length and the amount of fuel consumed on the flight (takes more fuel to carry more fuel).

    So what happened here? Most likely, the actual headwinds were a lot stronger than the forecasted winds (forecasts are never wrong, right?).

    Is it possible the pilot made a mistake? Of course. What’s more likely? The winds changed and maybe the pilots cut it a bit close. That said, the investigation will reveal the truth.

    But the idea that the pilot can simply “fill her up” reflects a misunderstanding about how aviation works.

    1. I think how Robert puts it, it kind of gives the other perspective. I imagine if I was a passenger, I would feel some type of way having to come all the way back and lose out on a day.

      On the plus side, at least they are in Hawaii and not in the middle of no where. Also, id rather them realize sooner than later that there isn’t enough fuel.

      Positive thing is that they are all lucky – because it could have always been worse.

    2. Robert,

      Are you an airline pilot? There are no headwinds in the flight levels flying East over the Pacific. You mentioned runway length, but that’s not an issue for SFO. Even if it were, that issue should be discovered while reviewing the performance data on the ground at HNL. What you’re saying doesn’t make sense.

      “Is it possible the pilot made a mistake?” Well, which ‘pilot’? There are two of them. This statement alone tells me you are not an airline pilot. If there was a load planning mistake by the ‘pilot’, then the dispatcher would be just as culpable. Of course this is possible, but I think there is more to this story than headwinds or pilot error. And I think you are oversimplifying; and labeling yourself as a pilot is misleading when you incorrectly identify the jet stream’s direction, among other things.

  3. Concerning the article ” United Miscalculates Fuel Needed for Failed Hawaii Flight”
    The article states, “United Airlines has characterized the issue as one caused by excessive headwinds”. WHAT? Don’t headwinds go east to west, not west to east???
    Something very strange here

      1. Saying “excessive headwinds” is a lot easier than saying, “The forecasted tailwinds weren’t as strong as they were forecasted to be, so we didn’t have enough fuel to make it all the way.”

        In essence, they’re the same. One makes sense and is a simpler explanation to those who don’t know aviation and weather.

    1. That is my understanding too — 4 hrs east and 5 hrs going west. So that means there must have been a complete swap in direction, & that better be the reason, or I will switch back to Hawaiian Air!

  4. You all are awesome. Not only do you bring fun Hawaii info to my mail box, but you are the only news site that covered that United flight faux pas of miscalculation of fuel from Hawaii to SF. Thank you for keeping it honest!

  5. Did the flight originate in Hawaii;or from somewhere else? A 777 isn’t usual equipment for a SFO flight; perhaps started in Australia or Japan?

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