Inflight Diverts: Costs, Compassion & Common Sense


Want to see an airline crewmember’s blood boil? Show them this report from the IATA convention in Madrid today:

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Well, okay. I realize that diverts are expensive. But there’s more.

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What’s so bad about that? Everything. First, in flight, nothing is “simple” about a restrained passenger (I’ll get to that below). But worse, besides the cost priority, this next consideration is one steaming plate of wrong for many reasons:

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Where to begin! Let’s sidestep the completely inappropriate “passengers would rather get to their destination” priority and look at the big picture.

First, perspective. The IATA is an industry group comprised of air travel-related businesses, including airlines, travel agencies, and related travel businesses who act as  an advocate to promote the airline industry.

As an airline captain, like most, I share the common goal of supporting a robust airline industry. It’s over priorities that we diverge: the IATA seems largely focused on costs, while crewmembers are focused on–and held accountable for–the safety of the flight and all aboard the aircraft first and foremost, THEN cost.

Here’s where those priorities clash.

Yes, diverts are expensive, among other things: they require quick, accurate and decisive action from the flight crew amidst a field of dynamic and ever changing variables and constraints. In that regard, cost is in the crew decision mix, but obviously it is an inappropriately high priority in the IATA mix.

Here’s where the blood boils in the flight crew veins. Consider the passenger first: what medical conditions are present? What allergies/reactions are in play? What vulnerabilities (meds required, in use, over/under-dosed), physical stress of “restraint” (psychological, cardiac, stroke), impaired breathing/circulation (what if the “restrained” vomits into his taped-shut mouth?), what intoxicants (legal or otherwise) are active, what mental impairment, or other behavior triggers are latent or evident? How secure and for how long is the restraint durable, feasible and reliable?

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The fact is, airliners are NOT designed with restraining seats. Will “duct tape” and belts or whatever is handy last for the duration of the flight–never mind will the person survive–or will they break free and the situation escalate:

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Now, the crew, and let’s be real: any experienced flight crew member will eventually (or has already) considered the historically accurate picture of personal consequence that consistently plays out in cases of passenger injury, illness and restraint. Walk through it with me firsthand:

Attorney, in court/deposition: So, [crew position], please for the record state your qualifications to restrain a passenger, your medical experience to monitor and assess the restrained, your law enforcement authority and experience in safe restraint, monitoring and supervision of restrained passengers, your skill at ongoing assessment and specific background of restrained, and your ability to determine how long such restraint is tolerable physically and medically appropriate?
You: [go ahead--answer …]

That’s got every red blooded crew person’s blood simmering, but here’s where the boiling point comes:

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That’s right: for the IATA, the above court scenario is secondary to the cost of a divert.

Walk with me on diverts for a moment, will you? Last night, on my flight approaching Boston’s Logan Airport.

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Weather closing in, winds presenting near-limiting crosswinds on wet, short runways, crowds waiting to land and take off. Heavy metal transatlantic birds on the tail end of their fuel curve, inbound. We are too–we have required loiter fuel, but that’s all. Like everyone else.

Two hundred miles out, I calculate fuel burn for divert to Providence, Albany and Hartford. I get the current weather for each. I assess the current weather pattern and how it will affect each. I calculate the fuel required to divert while enroute to Boston for each of the three divert options, plus the fuel required to divert from a missed approach at Boston, which is significantly higher for each.

This gives me the data I need to make a decision: when and where do I pull the trigger, based on fuel requirements, to divert, and where to? Make the best plan, fly it.

Notice my consideration of $6,000 to $8,000? It’s really not part of the picture at 40,000 feet and 500 knots–nor should it be.

Now return to the restrained passenger. Would you figure in your complex decision matrix the $8,000 against the unknowns of securing the situation, much less the life of the restrained and those around him, never mind the in-court answerability you WILL provide at zero miles per hour on land, a completely different, hindsight-based inquisition afterward?

I’m glad the industry lobby and support group focuses on costs in order to keep the very fragile, complex airline profitability mix viable. But I’m even more grateful for my airline’s 110% support of my many divert decisions made over 23+ years (and counting) as a captain.

Divert because a passenger was “restrained,” or rowdy? If only diversion were that simple. Despite the simplistic analysis of those with neither responsibility nor accountability, it definitely is not.

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10 Responses to “Inflight Diverts: Costs, Compassion & Common Sense”

  1. Cedarglen Says:

    Well said, Chris. You and the other crews have my unqualified support. EVERY time. -CG

  2. Bill Brandt Says:

    Safety of the passengers, crew and aircraft have to be paramount.

    What a decision matrix you have! The unruly passenger – as you said so well, something happens further along the planned route and then face lot of “why didn’t you” inquiries.

    I wonder how many of these diverts are the result of a boozed-up passenger? I seem to remember one in the last few weeks – I google “drunk divert Australian and get 2 recently

    http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/latest-news/aust-man-released-after-bali-hijack-scare/story-fn3dxix6-1226897738492

    http://www.theaustralian.com.au/travel/news/scoot-flight-from-sydney-to-singapore-diverted-to-bali-after-couples-row/story-e6frg8ro-1226919265096

    This seems to be more prevalent these days.

    But then, I am of the opinion that society always functions based on the lowest common denominator , and the bar keeps getting lower ;-)

    • Bill– I agree 100% with your theory: pax misconduct diversions could be reduced dramatically by eliminating alcohol from the airports, and definitely from the aircraft.

      Airlines eliminated smoking but they weren’t selling cigarettes. On board alcohol sales mean big bucks, and the industry itself won’t let that profit go.

      • Cedarglen Says:

        If double dipping is permitted here, I will: I agree with you and Bill, above that alcohol is the root of most pax behavior issues. I’m sure that the profits from in-board sale off set the odd diversion, but one of these days, a diversion will not be enough. I do object to alcohol (though I do not use it), I believe that it has no place on an aircraft, crew or pax. Crews (meaning captains) already have the right to deny boarding to intoxicated persons but do not do so often enough. Is there front office pressure? -CG

      • Actually, the directive and any pressure from the top is to eliminate/exclude any intoxicated passenger from boarding. I disagree that captains don’t deny boarding to intoxicated passengers enough. We are not involved in the boarding process routinely but if such a problem is ever brought to our attention, the action is clear: enforce the FAR which charges airlines with NOT boarding a passenger who appears to be intoxicated. No captain would willingly risk his license to take a potential problem into the air that could and should have been handled safely on the ground.

      • Cedarglen Says:

        Important typo correction: Should have said “I do not object to alcohol…”

  3. My biggest worry is with ETOPS certifications going past 180 minutes creeping up to 330 and even 180 minutes can be a very, very long flight for a pax who is having a heart attack. Sure some airplanes like the 777 are more than able to handle 330 minutes of flying on one engine but is a pax who is having a medical issue able to handle it? Sure ETOPS opens up new route possibilities but I wonder if it will still take a bite out of safety for when the crew needs to divert and land ASAP.

    • I see your point, but really, with four engine ops (747, Airbus) the overwater portion of flights has always been pretty extensive to the Far East and Australia. Still, as you said, it’s not a good feeling to be so far from help in a medical situation.

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