Thursday, May 6, 2010

Delay Tactics

Our government has come to our rescue again. They've passed a new law. Have you heard? They will now fine the airlines up to $27,500 per person if they strand you on the tarmac over three hours. My, how they look after our best interests.

Fearing they my have to shell out about $3 million bucks for each of their planes that sit off-gate for more than three hours, the airlines will surely establish two hours as the cut-off for bringing a plane back to the gate. That means that some gates must be held vacant, which means fewer gates will be available for normal operations, which means schedules must be reduced, especially during the stormy summer. (Ah, let's see, that's the time of year you travel the most, eh?)

So, when the plane goes back to the gate more fuel has to be boarded. That's more expense. Where will the airline make up that lost revenue?

Also, some passengers will inevitably want to get off. That will take more time and personnel services. And while all this is happening, you look and see the plane that was in line behind you taking off! And it's not even three hours yet! That could have been your plane. But, the government knows best, so don't fret.

Finally, your plane has its fuel load back. Your crew has their new paperwork, and hopefully, the return to the gate has not caused them to reach their duty time limit for the day. You push back. Now, do you think Ground Control sends you to the front of the line-up? You know better that to think that. But your government knows what's best for you, so relax. Write your congressman and tell him/her we need still more rules to protect passenger rights.

How has this all played out for me in the past? Here are three snippets, the first one was a classic goat-rope, much like the scenario I just described. The other two are the way it's supposed to be done. First the goat-rope.

LaGuardia: Thunderstorms blocked almost all the departure corridors. LaGuardia is not big―they have to be creative about lining up planes. The line-up looked like a rope doubled back on itself about five times. But, I wisely discerned, the hold area was west of our gate, while the departure runway was east of us. It didn't make much sense to me to waste fuel getting in the back of that winding line because we would eventually taxi right past our gate on the way out to the runway.

We managed to get Ground Control's attention on the busy frequency and asked them to insert us in the line when our “theoretical” position in the line passed by our gate. To my surprise they said yes. The wait would be about two hours. I coordinated it with the company and they liked the plan. They wouldn't have to pay us if we stayed at the gate longer. But―a people's hero―I was.

The time went slowly by. At two hours we called Ground Control and asked when we would be inserted into the line of planes inching by our gate. You guessed it. The deal was off. They sent us to the end of the line. Two more hours.

Salt Lake City: The weather in Denver was stormy. During our taxi out they gave us a one-hour delay. We pulled aside and shut down. I made an announcement. I flung open the cockpit door. I invited visitors up. I walked back through and greeted everybody, answered their questions. They like that. The hour went to two hours, with still no idea of when we might go. We were well past lunch time. I got on the PA. “Who wants to go back and grab a sandwich? We'll have to make it quick. Give me a show of hands.”

The plane voted to go back. There was no long line-up like in LaGuardia, so we were not in jeopardy of loosing our place. The station personnel were not too happy when I disgorged 120 people to raid the airport's lunch counters. The first officer sent word to me while I was out at the check-in counter. We were released. I grabed the handset and made an airport PA announcement. They came scurrying back. I helped the agents check boarding passes as the passengers filed back on board. We were off in less than 30 minutes. All happy.

San Diego: They told us to pull aside and wait. San Francisco was fogged-in. No estimate. I did my usual. Opened the cockpit, walked back. Chatted. The minutes turned to an hour. Then two. Two businessmen in first class told me they could no longer make their meeting in SFO so there would be no use now in their going. Could they get off? “Absolutely!” I said. Those guys were our bread and butter. I called station OPS and told them we were returning to the gate to disembark two passengers.

They said absolutely not. I asked why. Was a gate not available? Yes, they said. They had a gate, but they didn't have spare personnel to marshal us in and to operate the bridge. I politely said we were coming back. No, they unpoltely said. Can't do that. I politely said I was doing that. They protested more, but I was already underway back to the gate. I would see who would blink first in this stand-off. And I suspected a counseling session by my chief pilot was in the offing, but I pressed on.

When we got to the gate a marshaller met us. A bridge operator waited to attach it. I got off and apologized to him that our coming back necessitated him being pulled away from other duties. “No problem, man!” he exclaimed. “We were just all standing around up there. Nuthin' much going on right now.” The two businessmen went by, paused to shake my hand, smiling. They would be back to fly with us again. Thirty minutes later were were winging toward SFO. All happy. And no calls from the boss.That's the way it's done. We don't need no stinkin' new laws. We need crews to do their jobs.

What delay adventures have you experienced?

Quote of the post: "If an airplane is still in one piece, don't cheat on it. Ride the bastard down".
― Ernest K. Gann, The Black Watch, 1989


Lakotahope said...

I am with you Captain...

I generally dislike any government intervention as it tends to be quite inflexible.

Capt. Schmoe said...

Although this may mean some inconvenience to everybody concerned, anything more that two or three hours wait on the ground is excessive and should be avoided.

The reality is that the industry will find a way to manage the regulation, just as they have managed to handle every other regulation that has come their way. The flying public will adapt to the fewer gates, the cancellations etc.

As a result, no one will be held prisoner against their will in a fetid aluminum tube with 150 strangers, many of whom have questionable hygienic practices, limited social skills and the inability to control themselves or their children. All of this while restrained in an uncomfortable seat with limited room.

As you may guess, I am forced to fly coach. I might feel different if I was in first class.

As the airlines have refused to address this issue for years, the feds stepped in. That's what they do. Now, we will have to live with the results of our complaining and lobbying.

Sadly, not everyone is as flexible as you are and the 5 hour horror stories made great press.

Now we will just have to wait and see.

Anonymous said...

Plan: 19 Dec NCE-FRA-EWR, 20 Dec EWR-PHL-ELM. NCE doesn't have de-icing machinery, our plane sat at the gate overnight in the snow and rain, so we had to wait for the sun to melt the ice. 0755 departure turned into an 1130 depart, but the captain came up the bridge several times during the delay to chat with the passengers, and was the most-liked LH employee that day! So 19 Dec turned into NCE-FRA-DUS, with 20 Dec planned for DUS-EWR, and 21 Dec EWR-PHL-ELM. 20 Dec, DUS was completely snowed in, our crew's duty time expired, etc etc. 21 Dec, DUS-ORD-PHL, 22 Dec PHL-ELM -- and those plans actually worked! 4 days to get from Europe to small-town US, instead of 2. But amazingly the vast majority of the passengers I ran into in Europe were understanding of the problems, the kids were all well-behaved, etc etc.

Anonymous said...

Since aircraft don't move without ATC clearances, don't taxi without ATC clearances, etc. why not fine the ATC system when flights are delayed more than three hours?

Airports would need more gates to allow the planes to wait at the gate until an ATC clearance is given to pushback.

There will always be the changes that cannot be avoided once the aircraft leaves the gate like thunderstorms, snow, windshear alerts, etc. But fining the airline for following ATC's directions is simply wrong.

I'm not a pilot, but I once saw one on television.

Dan in ALB said...

Thanks for the interesting post! I have no strong opinion regarding the 3 hour delay rule but I could see it causing all sorts of issues at JFK. Speaking of JFK, will we be seeing a post about the AA heavy flight into 22R that declared emergency on short final to land 31R?

Anonymous said...

I'm in favor of fining those pesky thunderstorms (or evil clouds in SFO), for disrupting the ATC system.

Anonymous said...

You do tend to care about this sort of thing a lot more when you're in economy class than when you're in business.

But I wonder: is it really that difficult to get a set of airstairs and a bus out to a flight that's been waiting around for a while so that those who wish to leave can do so?

I suppose that there is the baggage issue.

But come to think of it, why is there this instance on having to have a gate, rather than a bit of apron and some airstairs, even when things get particularly busy? It would seem to me to be a fairly cheap way of dealing with an overload.

bradcockrell said...

Good quote at the end pop...

John said...

MUC-PHL. Left Munich 1.5 hours late (but we didn't sit on the plane that long). The pilot, against prevailing winds, made up 45 minutes en route. I'd hate to see that fuel bill! Then, arriving at Philly, we waited on the ground for an hour and a half while they "found a gate for us". The pilot was mad; the passengers were mad; the ground crews at Philly were unconcerned.

I was in coach for the long leg; the airline put me in first for the hour long flight home to Boston.

PHL is like that. You pay your nickle, you take your chance.

Anonymous said...

Hi there,

Autumn 1999, Stuttgart, Germany, Europe, EDDS, STR

German charter carrier to Arrecife, Lanzarote, GCRR, ACE

We had a one hour drive to the airport - which took nearly three hours because of an extreme amount of snowfall. Not unusual to get some snow at the end of october, but I guestimated about 15 inches...

Crew was late because of the snow situation regarding roads...

1.5 hours late, we are boarding. Have you ever experienced german all-inclusive tourists? You get it? This was 1.5 hours of their lifes at the beach... wasted... I told myself not to tell the usual hillbilly next to me, that shit happens... Kepp your mouth shut...

PA... de-icing equipment broke down, just one cart, trippled time for deicing, we'll have to wait...

De-Icing... complete...

PA... we're waiting in line with the other planes...

Another 2 hours later...

PA... De-Icing must be repeated, a takeoff with the now existing slush on the wings would be too dangerous, especially because of a gigantic height of the snow-and-ice-loaden-clouds.

And now the best: One tourist-cattle-hillbilly starting to rant, most of the others following his "argumentation"... one step short of a stampede, because this "expert" decided, the captain just wants to pull his leg, we were goog do go, no danger.... BLAH!

I decided, would the captain surrender to this idiot, I would pretend a heart attack - just to get out of this ill fated aluminum tube!

The captain's reaction was short: he slammed the pre-911-cockpit door without even looking back... I STILL LOVE THAT GUY - MORE THAN TEN YEARS LATER...

My personal Hobby-Pilot-Else-SLF-conclusion? Keep regulations to a minimum and let the drivers decide what to do. Pay them more, let them sleep more and give them more options. But again, that's not what the lobbies want to hear...

THANKS for this great blog, Mr. Cockrell. Cudos for your insights and your opinions!

Kind regards,

joven said...
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