This recent news item won’t bring any joy to the hearts of travellers:
“Weather delays in the U.S. have been trending higher the past four years, upending historical patterns and jumping to an 11-year high for this year’s summer storm season, according to government data for the 30 biggest airports.”
In my recent book “Airline Pilot – A Day in the Life,” I describe how pilots regard last minute diversions away from our scheduled destinations:
Every frequent flyer has a horror story about being dumped at an airport that was not their destination and then having to wait an intolerably-long time while harried airport staff struggled to make arrangements for the ongoing journey. In the days before air travel, this never happened. No one ever got on the famous 20th Century Limited American express train at New York City’s Grand Central station and then, instead of getting off in Chicago found themselves dumped in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the middle of the night, because Chicago’s weather was too foggy. Never.
Getting on a transport heading to one city, and ending up in an entirely different city, is a phenomenon of the Air Age. And it doesn’t just happen to our luggage. It’s a vital part of our safety strategy in aviation that we never fly to an airport experiencing bad weather without carrying enough fuel to divert to some other designated airport that has better weather. But we hate going there. Diversions make everyone unhappy, most of all our passengers.
Even worse, are diversions late at night, when everyone is tired and grumpy, and there are no good choices regarding what to do next. One option after a diversion is what I call the “bus ride from hell.” Whereas the aircraft couldn’t land at the destination, the roads remain open, and the only way to get everyone to the destination is by chartered bus and the long, long, slow drive. Of course, no charter bus company just keeps their expensive vehicles and drivers sitting around an airport, late at night, hoping for such trips, so it always takes several hours for the arrangements to be made, the buses to show up, and the passengers and luggage to get on board. It is not a fun way to spend the night.
Other times, the best option involves arranging last-minute hotel accommodations, assuming there are any available. After all, if one flight was diverted due to poor weather, probably others have as well. Again, there are long waits for the arrangements to be made, for shuttle buses to show up and then, the stay in the hotel is short. Next morning the trek must be made back to the airport because the sooner you get in the standby line, the sooner you might get a seat on the next flight out. Worst of all are the times when there are no provisions available at all, for whatever reason, so passengers end up spending a long, horrible night camped in the terminal building. One way or another, diversions are almost guaranteed to ultimately leave everyone totally exhausted and fed up with the “joys” of air travel.
But airlines also hate diversions. Besides causing angst and ill will in customers, diversions cause additional expenses and messed up schedules when aircraft and flight crews are suddenly not where they were scheduled to be. Airline planners must scramble to find available resources during times of changeable weather, and nothing throws a bigger wrench into the works than a flight diversion to a little-used, off-main-line alternate airport, in the middle of the night.
As far as most aviators are concerned, beyond all these negatives, the worst thing of all is the stress on our sphincters from operating flights with these minimal fuel reserves. It’s against our ultra-conservative natures. Unhappily for us, nowadays, thanks to computers and the ever-growing demand for lowest cost airfares our routes are carefully analyzed by very bright statisticians, using sophisticated algorithms, to establish airline fuel policies and procedures to determine the “acceptable rates” of diversions, while maximizing airline profits.
But statistics won’t alleviate the feeling in the pit of my stomach watching our small contingency fuel allotments disappearing during unplanned eventualities. Then, as we and our passengers and colleagues are dealing with the consequences, these talented statisticians who dreamed up the algorithms and the airline accountants and executives who approved them are at home sleeping comfortably in their own beds.
So, pilots use every flight procedure available to safely and legally avoid diversions.
More here: “Airline Pilot – A Day in the Life,”
Fly Safe! The Journey Continues…