It Begins With Just Two Flights on American Airlines -- Next Thing You Know, Aircraft Are Parked

LM Otero

News leaked out earlier today that American Airlines made a couple of route modifications on two flights departing out of Charlotte, North Carolina, that normally fly non-stop.  Each of those flights had one stop added to the flight.

Both need to stop for gas.

In trying to manage its available Jet A aviation fuel, American decided that the two flights departing out of Charlotte would leave without all the fuel needed to reach their ultimate destinations.

American Airlines is adding stops on two long-range flights out of Charlotte, North Carolina, in response to fuel supply chain disruptions caused by the shutdown of the massive Colonial Pipeline.

One route is normally a nonstop Charlotte-to-Honolulu flight, which will now stop in Dallas to have passengers switch to a different plane. The other is a Charlotte-to-London flight that will now stop in Boston for additional fuel.

This means Jet A is not arriving at Charlotte Airport in the quantities that American has ordered.  It took four days for the shortage to manifest itself to the extent that a “scheduled airline” is altering its service — and that is a big deal.

Delta Air Lines (DAL), based in Atlanta, Southwest Airlines (LUV) and United (UAL) all said they have not had to disrupt their schedules so far. Southwest said it is having fuel brought in by tanker truck.

CNBC quoted a statement put out by Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta:

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest for Delta Air Lines, said it is looking at other suppliers of fuel but that operations haven’t been affected.

“Hartsfield-Jackson and its airline partners are in close communications with fuel suppliers and are taking steps to mitigate any impact the Colonial incident might have,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. “Currently, ATL is coordinating with additional suppliers to augment the airport’s fuel inventory.”

All the airlines at all of the airports across the eastern third of the United States are going to begin to experience the same problem — probably within 24 hours. Jet A didn’t suddenly run short at Charlotte and no other location. Other airlines might have had inventory levels a little bit higher that have allowed them to avoid taking the step that American took today, but if the flow through the pipeline does not resume, overland transportation of Jet A by tanker truck will never keep up with demand, and flights will be canceled.

One problem with tanker truck deliveries has already begun to manifest itself — a lack of qualified drivers.

But there is also a shortage of tanker truck drivers, leaving an estimated 20% to 25% of tank trucks parked, according to an industry trade group. The driver shortage has sparked concerns that even when the pipeline is back online, the start of the traditional summer driving season on Memorial Day weekend could cause many independent gas stations to run out of gas — particularly in vacation hotspots.

The shortage of truck drivers is a hangover problem from the Pandemic.  With major parts of the economy shut down, there was a period of time when independent truckers were not needed.  Many sold or lost their trucks to repossession, and some simply retired from the business.  Truck driving is an occupation that requires a level of training that can’t be taken care of “on the job” by an employer.

One tactic Southwest put into use was to have planes flying from West to East to take their trips with more fuel than is needed, so they will require less fuel in an eastern airport before departing again.

Southwest Airlines is flying planes with additional fuel into airports including Nashville International Airport “to supplement the local supply.” Airlines can load more fuel on planes than generally needed to avoid or reduce ground refueling.

“We’re happy to report that there has been no impact to Southwest’s flight operations,” a spokesman said.

Canceling flights is not the end of the world. Airlines have a long history of dealing with flight cancellations caused by weather and equipment problems.  But if the fuel problems persist over a wide geographic area for any meaningful length of time, and multiple airlines are impacted, that will do real damage to the economy and the airlines in question.

Colonial Pipeline, owners of the pipeline that has been shut down due to a cyberattack, is still saying the pipeline will have been returned to normal operation by Friday — but what else would you expect them to say at this point even if that were not true. But Friday is reaching the outside boundary where what is now a nuisance will quickly turn into a problem.

Analysts have said the impact on supplies of jet fuel and other refined products like gasoline depends on how long the outage lasts, particularly as Memorial Day weekend approaches.

“We can draw inventory for probably a week and that’s when the problem would then become acute,” said Rick Joswick, global head of oil analytics at S&P Global Platts. “Hopefully this is resolved by then.”

Today is Day 5 of the pipeline shutdown.  It’s only Tuesday — we still have a long week ahead.