Strong winds slam airline's cost-cutting

A combination of cost-cutting and bad weather is causing serious inconvenience, and possibly safety concerns for people who fly across the Atlantic.

CBS News transportation correspondent Mark Strassmann reports that United-Continental sold many flights as international non-stops, but repeatedly Boeing 757s have run into headwinds crossing the ocean and run too low on fuel to reach their intended destination.

The flights originated in a half dozen European cities, including Paris, Amsterdam and Stockholm.

Pilots have encountered headwinds averaging 70 miles per hour, the strongest in a decade.

757s burn too much fuel, forcing them into unexpected refueling stops, often at Canadian airports like Goose Bay.

It happened 43 times last month - four times more than the previous December - and another 14 times so far this month, says Strassmann, inconveniencing thousands of passengers.

But as CBS News aviation consultant Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger tells "CBS This Morning," the inconvenience may be the worst of it for passengers.

While Sully says there is a very slight increase in risk when pilots are forced to land at an unfamiliar airport, "pilots are going to land when they have to because of fuel, so this is really not a safety issue in that regard."

But it is a convenience issue.

Sully says "it would have been a wiser" for the airlines to chose longer-range planes, with bigger fuel tanks, for trans-Atlantic routes, but, "the economics of the airline industry" means airlines are "trying to match the capacity of the airplane with the expected passenger load."

"The cost constraints they have now, they have to almost fill up every airplane to make any profit at all," explains Sully. To fly a larger airplane that's half-full wouldn't make the companies any money, he says.

For more on the transatlantic fuel challenge faced by United-Continental from Mark Strassmann, and more on airline safety in general from Capt. Sullenberger, click on the video player at the top of this page.