Despite a drastic increase in the number of “low” fuel warnings issued by pilots arriving at the Newark Liberty International Airport in 2007, government auditors have determined that all aircraft had landed with the required FAA minimum fuel levels onboard.

The finding is part of report by US Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General (OIG) prepared for New Jersey Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, who requested the review in November.

Though safety does not appear to have been compromised at Newark, Inspector General Calvin Scovel says the situation is creating a "burden on the air traffic system and an extra distraction for controllers in an already busy air traffic environment.”

By declaring “minimum fuel”, a pilot alerts air traffic controllers that the aircraft must have “little or no delay” in reaching the airport for landing, according to the IG report.

Pilots declaring an “emergency” are to be given priority in the landing queue due to dangerously low fuel levels.

FAA rules require an aircraft on landing to have enough fuel for at least 45 minutes of additional flight in case of poor weather or other obstacles at the destination.

Though the FAA requires controllers to file reports for emergency fuel situations only, controllers in New York had begun filing the reports for low fuel conditions as well “because of their frequent occurrence”, according to the report.

OIG says the number of “low fuel” declarations increased from 48 in 2006 to 134 in 2007, an increase of 180%.

Emergency low fuel situations decreased from 24 in 2006 to 17 last year, though both are significantly higher than the six instances recorded in 2005.

Auditors found that similar increases did not occur at the two other major New York area airports, LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy.

Of the 151 low and emergency fuel events at Newark in 2007, 66% (99 events) occurred on international flights, and 64% (96 events) were issued by Continental Airlines pilots, the OIG found.

A further analysis of 20 of those flights revealed at least 64 minutes of fuel remaining.

Continental's pilots union has expressed concerns that the use of 757s on long-haul routes terminating in congested areas like New York is part of the problem.

In fact the OIG found that pilots of Continental 757 flights from Barcelona to Newark declared minimum fuel 23 times in 2007, the highest number of any individual flight reviewed.

Additionally, Scovel was concerned that several Continental informational bulletins issued to pilots may have been interpreted to mean that less extra fuel should be carried to cut expenses.

"Our highest priority is safety, efficiency is second," says a Continental spokesman, adding that flight operations are based on flight manuals, not informational bulletins.

He says the 757 is the "correct aircraft for these routes", which are "well within" the operational range of the aircraft.