Airlines flying to Heathrow have been told to carry as much fuel as possible in their tanks because of supply problems at Britain’s largest airport, in a controversial practice that can increase carbon emissions.
The airport asked airlines to carry excess fuel on the way to London and to avoid carrying too much when departing, citing supply issues, in a notice sent on Sunday. The notice covered nine days from Sunday 23 July to Monday 31 July.
Heathrow said there had been no impact on passengers or flights from the request.
Fuel tankering is controversial because the practice significantly increases the weight of kerosene stored in the aircraft’s wings. That extra weight increases the amount of fuel burned on a flight, and therefore its carbon footprint. Yet despite the extra cost and carbon emissions, it can be financially worthwhile for airlines if fuel is cheaper at one airport than at another.
In Europe alone the practice produces 900,000 tonnes of unnecessary carbon emissions a year – equivalent to about 2,800 flights between Paris and New York – according to a 2019 study by Eurocontrol, an air traffic controllers’ group. The main reason for tankering was to avoid higher prices at some airports, saving airlines a combined €265m (£229m), Eurocontrol said, although airlines also used it occasionally if strikes threatened to disrupt refuelling.
British Airways, the UK’s flag carrier airline, is among companies that have previously been accused of regular tankering. The Times last month reported that BA had regularly used fuel tankering since 2019, when it had promised to “review” the practice after a BBC Panorama investigation.
The world’s bestselling plane, the Airbus A320, has the capacity to carry upwards of 24,000 litres of fuel, weighing 19 tonnes, in tanks in its wings and the main body of the plane. For shorter routes not all of the capacity would be required.
A Heathrow spokesperson said: “The airport has sufficient fuel supplies and passengers can be reassured that their flights will continue to operate as normal.”
The airport declined to comment on the cause of the supply issue. Fuel arrives at the west London airport via underground pipelines and is then delivered to one of two facilities. Some fuel is also delivered by truck.
Heathrow airport does not have day-to-day control over fuel supply, which is handled instead by Heathrow Hydrant Operating Company and Heathrow Airport Fuel Company, which are both owned by consortiums of oil companies.
So large is the demand for fuel for Heathrow that it requires a constant supply transported via pipeline from ExxonMobil’s Fawley refinery near Southampton. The UK’s largest refinery, it takes in as many as 2,000 shipments of crude oil a year which are distilled into petrol and diesel for cars and lorries, as well as jet fuel and chemicals for use in industry. ExxonMobil is also building a replacement pipeline to the airport.
The global aviation industry is already struggling with its reputation on the environment, as forecasters expect global demand for air travel to soar as poorer countries grow wealthier.
Manufacturers have been so far unable to build a plane capable of long-range travel without emitting carbon into the atmosphere. In the absence of a zero-emissions technology, airlines and airports such as Heathrow are starting to use so-called sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) that produces net zero emissions because it is made from plants or from carbon captured from the air. However, SAF is still in short supply.