Everybody’s got their own personal fuel minimums, but as a new captain it’s sometimes hard to figure out just what that number should be for a specific flight on a specific day for a given city pair, particularly if it’s a new destination for you or you’ve not flown there in the recent past.
For many years I avoided flying into Newark (EWR) as we were constantly cursed with the dreaded “OPEC One” arrival: a low altitude, circuitous routing that seemed to take forever as New York Approach had to vector airliners arriving from the south and southwest to a position North of the airport in order to make a southerly landing. Just when you could see the airport, they would vector you away from the field and start a long lazy circle that seemed to be an endless chain of follow-the-leader. Flying at 6000 feet for most of the route, you watched your fuel gauges decrease from a comfortable margin as the Jet A was consumed at a great rate, probably 2-3 times the rate we burn at the higher cruise altitudes.
Adding extra fuel for landings at EWR was part of my insurance policy, particularly if they were landing to the South and I knew my arrival route would have me flying that OPEC One procedure. My biggest concern was to land with enough fuel to keep my heart rate normal in case of an unexpected go-around, an airport closure or some other unforeseen anomaly. Consequently, the first thing I always looked at on the flight plan was FOD or fuel over destination.
If the weather was bad and I had an alternate airport listed (and the fuel to get there, make an approach or 2 as well as extra holding fuel) I would normally rest easier, knowing the dispatcher was required to put on extra fuel required by FARs (Federal Aviation Regulations). I just needed to check the holding fuel to make sure we had enough “hang around” time before we called “bingo” and headed off to the specified alternate airport, or chose a different more weather-friendly one.
It was almost contradictory how having a cloudy weather forecast at the destination could actually be a relief. That way I didn’t have to think about all the possible problems which could occur on a nice clear day, when the azure blue sky can produce a rather false sense of security. Instead, the regulations dictated lots of extra fuel and I could easily justify adding more if I thought it necessary with my reasoning that the more time we had to hold, the more likely we were to get the passengers to exactly where they wanted to go.