You are enjoying your day, looking up at the shapes in the clouds when all of a sudden, a pilot far above you releases thousands of gallons of jet fuel. It is jarring, confusing, and seemingly illegal, but it is an accepted practice known as fuel dumping.
The relatively uncommon practice, received renewed interest and scrutiny recently following a plane dumping fuel onto a Los Angeles elementary school playground in mid-January. While there were no injuries, reports of severe nausea and noxious odors prompted questions and criticisms of the practice of fuel dumping. So, why does fuel dumping occur, and what are the implications?
In essence, fuel dumping is the practice of an aircraft losing weight before it lands. Planes are constructed to land at a certain weight, and heavier planes are more likely to experience hard landings which result in mild to severe structural damage.
Oftentimes, flights do not take off or land with a full tank–this practice reduces the risk of structural damage. Flight planners calculate the necessary amount of fuel needed to successfully complete a trip so enough fuel will be burned over the course of the flight that the aircraft will be light enough to land safely. This is why fuel dumping only occurs in emergency situations, emergencies in which a plane needs to land before an appropriate amount of fuel has been burned.
In the case of the Los Angeles fuel dumping incident, a Boeing 777 Delta flight traveling from LA to Shanghai experienced a compressor stall in its right engine, forcing the pilot to conduct an emergency landing. The pilots released jet fuel while returning to LAX, affecting students and staff on the playground of the Park Avenue Elementary. According to the Los Angeles County Fire Department, 17 children and 9 adults were treated for minor injuries.
Pilots usually dump fuel at higher altitudes so that it evaporates before hitting the ground. This time, the aircraft was low enough to shower the school. Now, Delta Airlines faces a lawsuit filed on behalf of three Pioneer High School students, in addition to the legal action taken by teachers of Pioneer High School last month.
Ultimately, the controversy surrounding the Park Avenue Elementary incident is the altitude at which the fuel was dumped. Pilots generally try to dump fuel at a high enough altitude to allow the fuel to evaporate (at an altitude of over 5,000 feet), in addition to dumping over remote areas where individuals and infrastructure will not be affected. Though there were no severe injuries in the recent Los Angeles incident, minor injuries were endured and the toxic smell caused increased alarm due to the longstanding history of industrial contamination in that particular LA neighborhood.
The environmental hazards of dumping jet fuel is an important implication. Naturally, jettisoned fuel has the potential to negatively affect the environment in terms of water and soil pollution. However, it has been determined that the Delta fuel jettison over Park Avenue Elementary is unlikely to cause long-term health problems.
Written by Blair Hassett, Public Policy Intern
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.