The controller working with a 737 crew was much more explicit about the options available to that crew. As they approached a holding fix, the controller was issuing EFC (expect further clearance) times of one hour, and there were quite a few aircraft in the holding pattern below them. They informed the controller that they were minimum fuel and could not hold for that long. The controller gave them three choices, “either hold, divert to your alternate or declare an emergency.” The crew determined they did not have enough fuel to divert, so after consulting with dispatch, they declared an emergency and “landed at the airport with no incident.”
Air traffic controllers can take matters into their own hands by declaring an emergency for an aircraft whose crew are hesitant to do so. In one example, an airplane approached the destination with minimum fuel reserves after considerable diverting due to weather. The weather at the destination was good, with ceilings of 12,000 overcast and nine miles’ visibility, so even though they would be landing only 100 pounds above their minimum landing fuel, they decided it was not necessary to declare minimum fuel. A few minutes from the initial approach fix, the controller asked if they could hold. In a vast understatement, the crew responded that their fuel situation “could become an issue.”
The controller apparently “read between the lines,” because when they reached the approach fix, they were told to contact Approach Control and that ATC was declaring a fuel emergency for them. The crew informed the controller that if they had to hold they would be in a minimum fuel situation, not an emergency situation. However, when they contacted the approach controller, he did not mention their fuel situation but allowed them to continue toward the airport without holding. When they parked at the gate, they had less than the minimum required fuel on board the aircraft.
Pilots need to realize that controllers’ options are restricted by the regulations and their operating orders. As stated above, a minimum fuel advisory does not imply a need for traffic priority. If you tell a controller you are minimum fuel, you are merely providing information without freeing the controller to take any action outside of normal operations to help you. It is obviously very frustrating to a controller to be dealing with a pilot who is saying he doesn’t have enough fuel to accept a vector or hold, but who doesn’t want to actually declare an emergency, which is what the controller needs to hear to be able to help the pilot. It is fortunate that controllers have the authority to declare an emergency for the pilot, and are willing to use that authority if it will benefit the pilot.
Why are pilots so reluctant to declare an emergency? To a certain extent this hesitancy is probably based on our natural tendency not to want to ask for help, combined with a fear of the consequences of declaring an emergency. Many pilots feel that anyone who declares an emergency is required to submit extensive reports and will probably receive a violation. Reality is very different. FAR 91.3 states that, if a pilot uses his emergency authority to deviate from any rule, he may be asked to submit a written report to the FAA. In a similar manner, FAR 91.75 allows a pilot to deviate from an ATC clearance and states that ATC may ask for a detailed report if the pilot was given priority.
Notice that, in each case, the regulation does not actually require a written report, or any report at all. While the FAA does routinely investigate almost every declared emergency, experience shows that this seldom results in anything more than a phone conversation with the pilot. Legal action is very rare and reserved for the most extreme examples of unprofessional flying. Air traffic controllers want to help pilots stay alive and safe. They want us to feel free to declare an emergency without fear of punishment, and they need a declaration of an emergency to free them to provide the maximum amount of assistance available. They realize that weather, traffic and mechanical issues can cause problems that cannot be foreseen or planned for, and they are truly relieved when a pilot lands safely after declaring an emergency.
If you end up in a corner with few or no viable options, remember that controllers can help only to the extent that they understand the problem and have the authority to deal with it. It is better to declare an emergency and clearly communicate your lack of fuel to the controller than to drag out the minimum fuel charade as you continue to consume what is left in your tanks. Even if a phone call or written report is not requested after you land, it would be nice to contact the facility and thank the appropriate personnel for the excellent job they do helping to keep us safe and getting us out of the fixes we sometimes find ourselves in.