Archive for the flight delays Category

Motion Lotion: What’s the Commotion?

Posted in air travel, airline, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airliner, flight crew, flight delays, jet, jet flight, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2013 by Chris Manno

“The only time you can have too much fuel is when you’re on fire.” –Anonymous Pilot

Those are words to live by, in the flying business–but jet fuel is expensive. In fact, it’s just about the largest expense in the operation of the airline, which is why it makes sense to use fuel as sparingly but sensibly as possible. But as a passenger, what’s it to you?

Well, for starters, this:

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Do we go around it? Above it? Through? You won’t like the last option, but fuel is the double-edged sword in this fight: more means we’re heavier, which limits our climb. Plus, going around the weather will burn more fuel, limiting our options at our destination:

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We’re at 36,000 feet now, which is just about the optimum altitude. “Optimum” is a moving target: as you burn off fuel enroute, the jet gets lighter and the wing can handle a higher altitude, which means the engines can operate at a lower thrust setting, thus saving fuel. We’re within 200 feet of the max if we climb to 38,000 feet to top the weather. We can wait till the “max” readout shows “380,” or really, from experience, we know that in the time it takes to request and receive the clearance, plus what we’ll burn in the climb, we’ll be at the correct weight. But, there’s always a catch.

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The airspeed tape on the left shows us a very narrow operating range at the top end of our altitude capability. That is, your range of acceptable airspeed is from about 212 to about 245. The “chain” above that shows the area of high speed buffet, meaning parts of the aircraft, above that speed, will begin to go supersonic. More importantly, though, in my mind, is Mach tuck: swept-wing jets tend toward a pitch down near the high speed limit, and guess what a pitch down does: your high speed becomes even higher. In a jet, particularly a passenger jet, if you don’t recover aggressively and immediately, you will not be able to stop what will become a dive.

On the bottom of the tape is the yellow line we call “the hook,” which is the slow speed stall. If you go below that speed, your airfoil will stall, and you will fall.

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So, at 38,000 feet, we have very little margin between the high and low speed buffet, requiring extreme vigilance on our part: turbulence, mountain wave action, or a drastic updraft of any kind can push us beyond either speed limit. Which is also part of the balancing act the captain must perform:

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I insert a slower Mach number in order to cruise more toward the middle of the range between the high and low speed limits. That, too, though, will affect our arrival time, won’t it? But that’s a balance I feel can be maintained, knowing that we’ve picked up some direct routing already. I’d rather sacrifice some time (and really, fuel) to gain a better pad between any adverse effects (mountain wave, thunderstorm up drafts, windshear, clear air turbulence) that could push us into either boundary.

And, I’ve already checked: the winds at the higher altitude are more favorable. To be even more accurate, I’ve requested a data-linked update to our flight management system, updating the projected winds the computer is using to calculate the times, distances and fuel burn it displays because what we data-linked into the system on preflight hours ago may not still be accurate:

fms crz wind update

The photo makes it hard to see, but the new, uplinked wind speeds are highlighted, all I need to do is push the “EXC” (execute) button and the entire nav calculation will be updated in a matter of seconds.

Climbing early has taken us out of more headwind earlier, so I believe the ETA will be largely unaffected. This hunch is borne out as we progress in our flight:

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We cross Pocatello, Idaho (PIH) six minutes ahead of schedule and up 700 pounds on fuel. If, however, the higher altitude winds were less favorable, we’d end up with the same result by going around the weather (more miles at regular cruise Mach)  as by climbing above the weather (less miles at a slower speed). The latter option is better, fuel-wise, as you can see from the fuel log above. But we’ll do whatever is safest and most optimum first, and worry about timing  later. Plus, if we don’t have what I consider a comfortable high speed-low speed margin at the higher altitude–we’re not climbing, we’ll just have to fly the additional miles (and minutes) around the storm.

It’s not just air miles between us and Seattle–it’s a constant balancing act of time, fuel, altitude and route. It all goes on steadily, quietly but relentlessly in the cockpit, but we all share the payoff in the end.

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Summer Weather, Flight Delays and YOU.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline delays, airline pilot blog, airport, fear of flying, flight crew, flight delays, passenger, travel, travel tips, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2013 by Chris Manno

fll sunsetYou can see the weather plain as day. But it’s miles away, right? How could that cause flight delays? Or worse, on a day that’s clear at the airport–yet your flight shows a one hour or longer departure day. Why?

Think big–or at least think far: miles translate into minutes in the air, and unlike your car on the freeway, we’re not creeping along under the storm–we have to get through it. At altitude, sure, we can go around weather or sometimes, even over a storm. But there’s the problem on take-off and landing: we are too low to do either.

First, let’s look at departure:

wx radar departure

Sure, the weather is nearly twenty miles away. But in flight time, we’re talking about maybe three minutes. Then what?

Normally, there are at least six eastbound routes available, but as you can see, due to the weather that extends from the north to the south, even twenty miles away, there are only two routes available to go east: straight north, or straight south. And guess what? They’re the same ones that will have to be used for the inbound aircraft–and they’re already in the air, many for over three hours inbound from the east coast, or up to nine hours from Europe. Guess who rightfully has priority on the clear routes?

Here’s more bad news for your outbound schedule:

lowgn4All of the departures–like the one pictured in above, and depicted on the navigation display with the radar image above–have very specific instructions for headings, altitudes and even speeds. But with the weather blanketing the area, no jet can comply with these very orderly instructions, so instead, air traffic controllers have to issue all headings and altitudes individually to each aircraft, checking to be sure that weather doesn’t interfere.

So the Air Traffic Control system must space jets by ten, sometimes ever twenty miles in trail to allow for the individual handling required, which means that instead of the usual interval of thirty seconds to a minute between launches, now takeoff will have to be 2-3 minutes in between.  You’re number ten for take-off? Count on at least 30 minutes, maybe more–especially if the weather arrives over the field while you wait.

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So, rather than have a traffic jam at the end of the runway waiting to take off, ATC issues all aircraft an “EDCT” (Expect Departure Clearance Time), or “edict,” as the acronym is typically mangled by crews, or even “wheels up time” in more common usage. This can usually mean an Air Traffic Control imposed delay on your pushback from the gate of forty-five minutes to an hour or more.

That presents another problem: while a delayed flight is held on the gate, the next aircraft scheduled for that gate will be delayed as well, either in the deplaning of passengers or the boarding of its next segment. At a major hub for any airline, there aren’t enough extra gates to make up for flights that must be held on their departure gates. If you arrive at the terminal and notice about double the normal amount of passengers milling about–that’s why: their outbound jet is waiting while a delayed flight sits on the gate, waiting for its EDCT time to roll around.

That’s what happens on the ground–here’s what happens in flight–which actually contributes to the confusion and delays on the ground.

wx radar arrivalSee the racetrack pattern near “CAPTI?” That’s where we’re going to be holding, hoping the weather clears within our allotted holding fuel, which is about 45 minutes. The airport is under the blob of storms at the convergence of all the lines.

The jet we’re flying is being ardently awaited at DFW by 160 passengers who plan to fly on it to LAX after we deplane our Dulles passengers at DFW. But, we’re now on our way–diverting–to New Orleans because DFW is still closed and won’t open for at least an hour.

Add to that the fact that my copilot and I started our flight day at 12:35pm. We leave New Orleans at 11pm, but have to fly all the way to Abilene before we can turn back to the east around the scythe of thunderstorms bisecting Texas. What’s normally a one hour and ten minute flight turns into two and a half hours, pushing my first officer to a 14 hour flight duty day, landing at 2:15am.

Not sure what happened to all the LAX-bound folks, whether they got a crew to fly the leg or not, or what happened to the connecting passengers on our flight arriving after 2am.

All I know is that this promises to once again be another season of crowded skies, summer storms, bone-achingly long flight days and above all, a challenge to everyone’s fortitude and patience. Now that you know the “what and why” of the weather story–maybe you could explain it to the guy seated next to you, wondering why everything is so messed up because of a little old storm?

ramp DFW

Airline Pilot Confidential: The Teddy Bear Incident.

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airlines, airport, airport security, flight crew, flight delays, passenger, unaccompanied minors with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2013 by Chris Manno

flashIt’s the middle day of three back-to-back turns–pace yourself.

In fact, it’s the second leg of the middle turn, Dulles International, 7pm–time to get out of town: the elephant walk of international widebody jets commences shortly.  If we can push back even five minutes early, we can beat the line–and the wake turbulence delay.

prflt docsUse the captain’s invisibility cloak: the ability to do most pre-flight planning on the smart phone. Check the weather, the route, the fuel load. Add more fuel. Sign the release with a touch of the screen, then send a hard copy to a gate printer, all from the cockpit. Wait for it to finish printing then slip into the terminal discretely, invisibly, to pick up the paperwork, avoiding the gate chaos directly. Don’t make eye contact, don’t invite hassles, complaints, requests, anything that delays the door slam and brake release to get ahead of the fat boys headed for the runway. Still have to fly to DFW, drive home–then back out to do the turn again tomorrow. Minutes from pushback, be invisible now.

But wait. Out of the corner of your eye, you see it: a teenage girl, on her phone, tense; next to her, what could only be her younger sister in tears. No parents, no adults, just the agent telling them both, “You either board now, or you’ll have to fly tomorrow.” That sends the little one into big sobs.

timer 3Less than fifteen minutes till push. Can you maybe say you didn’t see any of this? But you did.

“What do you need?” you ask the older, maybe sixteen-year-old sister.

She puts the cell phone down for a second, plaintive. “She left her backpack at security.”

Sigh. The agent is looking at you pointedly, his eyes saying we need to board now and shut the aircraft door. But from the tears in the young girl’s eyes, you pretty much guess what’s in the backpack. I consider taking the youngster back through security–but then think better of it.

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We’d have to run to the center of the terminal, down two escalators, onto the train to the main terminal, up two more escalators, then find the security checkpoint that might still have the backpack–then retrace our steps, before departure time in fifteen minutes. Not going to happen.

I catch the older sister’s eye. “You have some ID?” She nods. “Let’s go.” I head off at a fast walk toward the mid terminal; “Wait here!” she tells her little sister, and the agent slumps the message damn you captain. Big sister’s on my heels, asking, “Can we do this?” Just shrug; “They’re not leaving without me.”

IAD 1

We tumble down the two-story escalator two steps at a time, shoving past others like obnoxious travelers. I envision people watching, trying to figure out why an airline captain in uniform is running away from a teenager in hot pursuit. I also remember the miles I ran that morning before flight.

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Even though the automated voice is warning that the doors are closing–do not delay this train–I do anyway, holding the door as she jumps aboard. “It’s got all her school books,” she says, out of breath. Right: I have a big picture of a fifth grader hauling a load of schoolbooks on spring break.

“No worries,” I say, “It could happen to anyone.” She nods. “Special guys in there?” I ask casually. She smiles sheepishly.

I don’t care: that’s a very real tragedy for a youngster, losing all the stuffed guys that mean the world to them. Not on my watch.

We spill out of the train on the far end, then WAIT: this will take us to baggage claim and out of the secure area–we need the TSA checkpoint! We dash back through the closing exit doors, then push through the boarding passengers and out the other side.

Two sets of identical escalators–both going down. Means we have to rush up the steps–but which ones? “Which security checkpoint did you use?” I ask. She looks confused; they are identical, not sure how one could really know anyway. “Let’s try this one,” I say, rushing the steps.

security-den

We reach the TSA supervisor’s stand. He shakes his head. “No pink backpack here–try the other side.”

Figures. We run the length of the concourse and arrive at the opposite checkpoint. “You’re lucky,” a cheerful TSA agent in a pressed blue shirt says, “we were getting ready to send it to lost and found.”

Identification checked, signatures. She sees me eying her sister’s backpack. “Uh, we need to start putting a nametag on this, don’t we?”

I nod. Lesson learned. It’s confusing, especially kids traveling alone. “I was on the phone with my Mom,” she says, “hoping we could get someone to drive out here and pick up the backpack.”

“No worries,” I say, in my mind’s eye picturing the waves of 747s and A-340s pushing back, lining up for takeoff.  “Anyone can lose stuff at the airport, especially at security.”

We retrace our steps as fast as we can, me feeling the morning miles, my friend feeling and looking relieved. At the gate, she hands the backpack to little sister who still looks mortified.

They rush down the jetbridge to board. I walk, telling the agent “Just charge me with the delay.” He gives me a glare that says I was going to anyway, which I answer with a smile that says I don’t care.

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The elephants already started the parade and we squeezed into the conga line. Sure, I’d have some explaining to do a thousand miles or so west. But no one missed their connection in DFW, no one was unduly delayed; and most importantly, no one’s little world collapsed with the loss of everyone they loved. That, to me, matters a lot.

Because we don’t just fly jets–we fly people. That, and the occasional special bear.

Winter Flying: Faith and Defiance.

Posted in airline, airline pilot blog, flight, flight crew, flight delays, jet, passenger, pilot, travel, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2013 by Chris Manno

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I can’t decide if winter flying is is one long act of defiance, or shorter acts of combined faith. On a cold January day with an icy, raggedy ceiling and needle-like freezing rain rasping against the fuselage on taxi-out, on board it’s a steady 75 degrees. People aboard reflect the destination, not our departure point–and act of faith on their part requiring an act of defiance on mine.

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It’s actually a worthy challenge, bringing all of the details to a successful conclusion: flight planning, routing, de-icing, preflight, taxi-out and pre-take-off de-icing. There’s a puzzle to assemble, jagged pieces of holdover times for de-icing fluid, precip rates and types–you know what’s reported, but you deal with what’s actually happening–and it’s up to you to account for the difference. Take-off performance degrades; weight limits based on the restrictions of leaving, but with due diligence to the weather conditions 1,200 miles south.

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Boeing has given us a marvelous machine that will wake up encased in ice, but in a matter of minutes will operate from the ice box to the tropics. Not magic–just a lot of grunt work by a lot of people.

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It’s a lot slower, but more than the temperature is involved: there are more requirements, plus people and machines work slower in the cold. As they should be expected to do, but which often results in frustration for those whose involvement is limited to riding the jet rather than trying to fly it safely. Sorry.

But eventually, we get to this:

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Again, that’s going to be slow, too, by necessity. But be patient: the destination must be worth the trip, right? But inevitably, the factors a passenger plans to escape by air don’t make that escape easy.

Half the battle is getting into the air–where the other half is usually just as challenging. Again, the same crud that you want to escape packs a punch from the surface to the stratosphere. We’ll deal with that, too, at 300 knots, or maybe 280 if it’s bumpy. Already told the cabin crew to remain seated till I call them, when I’m sure we’re in safe, stable air. More griping from passengers, I know, but they’re not responsible for not putting a crewmember through a ceiling panel.

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This is how it might look if anyone checked ahead (I did) so it wasn’t surprising face to face, really. Which looks more like this, and nobody’s getting to paradise till they work their way through this frontal line.

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Eventually, we win: the further south we go, the more miles we put behind us, the weather–and the escape–become reality. You begin to get a glimpse of paradise with your 320 mile digital vision. The 20-20 eyeballs show the passage from land to water, a sure sign of warmer days for 160 souls on board, patient or not.

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Soon it’s all blue, with ghostly outlines below that carve the indigo into brown and green, lush islands poking above the mild, warm seas.

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Nassau, the Bahamas, straight ahead. Power back, begin the slow, gentle glide from seven miles high to sea level. More islands slide silently below the nose. Never tire of seeing the parade of blues, browns, greens; paradise.

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Where’s the snow now? The icy grip of winter? Escape–by the lucky hundred and sixty aboard, each with their own getaway plan, winter runaways we eagerly aid and abet: someone has to break free, to teach winter a lesson.

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A world away, if only but the blink of an eye in a lifetime, it’s nonetheless an eyeful. I’m happy for those who’ll stay, at least for a while.

IMG_1390Welcome to Nassau. For me, it’s a few moments of sunshine and sea air on the ramp while ground crews unload cargo, reload, refuel and get us turned around and ready for launch back to the north. Too soon, in a way, but not soon enough in another: this isn’t my escape–it’s my job.  From which, for the vagabond pilot, home is the escape. Will be back here, back and forth, all winter.

IMG_1388He’s headed home, too, a longer way back, but with a couple hundred aboard not facing the cold quite yet. But likely missing the scenery shrinking below as we climb and arc away to the north.

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So long to paradise, hello radar scan; fuel burn, overwater navigation, peaceful cruise until you face the enemy line you already slipped through once today. Still there, waiting. The sun gives up, slips into the muck and so do you, both promising another trip around the globe another day.

IMG_1391There’s the final act of defiance, or maybe faith: through the choppy, sleet-streaked darkness, at 200 knots, toward the runway you better know is below the 200 foot ceiling.

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Then it’s all about home, after appeasing the winter gods (“We brought at least as many back from paradise–you can ruin the rest of their season, plus make them wistful for the tropics the rest of the year!”) yet again. A healthy respect goes both ways; careful defiance, faithful flight. Starts again tomorrow.

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Flying into the Nor’easter October 29th, 2011: juggle a thousand moving parts.

Posted in air travel, flight delays, jet, Nor'easter 10-29-11 with tags , , , on October 30, 2011 by Chris Manno

Ah, the point of universal equality: all of the alternates you’ve loaded into the Flight Management Computer doing a thousand calculations of time, distance, airspeed and fuel flow have reached the same number: 9.5. Which is 9,500 pounds of fuel on the deck at each–if we leave the holding pattern we’re in over the Shenandoah mountains of Virginia.

Yes, that’s a blanket of snow down there, and uncommon October dumping of thick, wet flakes wreaking havoc on the surface: fall foliage still on the trees gathers the fat flakes in a blanket that snaps branches and snags power lines.

The alternates now line up for a second with the same arrival fuel and they’ll tick down that way as we hold, geographically in the middle point between Baltimore, Syracuse, Boston and our destination, LaGuardia.

You tell the First Officer, “When the fuel prediction reaches 7,000 fuel on deck–we divert.” Because 7 eventually shrinks to 5 due to the air traffic glut all competing to get to either a destination or alternate. The fuel prediction should come with a little caveat, “results may vary.” We ain’t stupid–done this a few times before.

Our flight 9409 from Miami checks in on frequency, entering a holding pattern. “We have the Miami Dolphins on board,” the pilot says, pleading with New York Center, “Anything you can do to get us into any of the New York airports would be appreciated.” Must be coming up to play either the Giants or the Jets.

We laugh in our cockpit. “We have the Omaha Women’s Bowling and Quilt Team on board,” I say cross-cockpit, “anything you could do . . .” But New York Center has no options: “Diverts allowed south only,” comes the answer. “Or maybe we can get you Boston or Hartford.”

Crap–looks like Syracuse is out for us. Didn’t want to go there anyway–too small, slow turnaround–but it takes away from my perfect geographical display of options. I like options. Okay, add Richmond. The First Officer is busy reading out loud the terminal forecast for our various divert options, but I tune him out–I don’t give a damn about the forecast an hour ago for an hour from now. But it gives him something to do.

We’re cleared down track, exiting the holding pattern–but don’t get your hopes up: that just means someone in the holding stack 70 miles ahead finally said “uncle,” reaching their fuel bingo, and diverted. A dozen jets are heading for your stack and the controller is shooing you off to the next sector.

Now that’s funny: starting to see holding? We’re in a holding pattern. But there’s the bad news: JFK is landing south which conflicts with the LaGarbage traffic pattern landing north. Crap.

Why does JFK get priority? Because it has a couple dozen westbound transatlantic widebodies inbound and they’ve been in the air for 5 or more hours already. LaGuardia with it’s postage stamp sized runway (7,000 feet versus 13,000 at Kennedy) cannot  land with tailwinds due to stopping distance. So if Kennedy is landing south, LaGuardia arrivals are shut down.

“I can get you Boston or LaGuardia, eventually,” says the air traffic controller to our Dolphins team charter. “Standby,” comes the tense answer, and I know why.

We already did the math: we’ll weigh 132,000 pounds on landing; the runway is wet, so we need 5,660 feet to stop. Gives me 1, 400 as a safety margin–which will require all other perfection–screw the charts–in my mind: not only no tailwind, have to have  some headwind and no bad braking reports or we go to Kennedy (sorry Lufthansa). But the 757 landing distance number will be different, stopping the jet may be a problem. He’s looking closely at his Boeing chart, no doubt.

Which is another piece of the puzzle we both did as captains before launching off into the Nor’easter: take more fuel for increased loiter time, but then know you’ll deal with a heavier landing weight on a crappy surface due to the freak snow storm. Clearly, fuel wins, but he’s dealing with the stopping distance problem. And Newark is flying a complex RNAV approach that I don’t believe the 757 can do. Plus, its minimums are so high and the ceiling so low–it probably won’t work out anyway. That just sends you off on a gas-guzzling low altitude divert.

There’s a screaming headline in the weather-related alphabet soup: 1/4 mile visibility in snow and fog at LaGarbage. And previous American jets reported the ceiling really at 300 feet. Left quartering crosswind  at 14 knots; you get about ten seconds to see the runway, line up and find the touchdown spot.

Jill calls from the cabin: “We have an elderly woman who stepped out of  the lav feeling dizzy; she passed out and we’re giving her oxygen.” First officer stops reciting the weather forecasts and adds, “I sometimes pass out after a huge dump too;” I laugh, Jill doesn’t.

“Keep us posted,” I say, adding one more moving part to the dozens in play: medical attention for the woman, quick landing if she gets worse.

My magic fuel numbers have shifted dramatically: the closer south alternates show less arrival fuel than the more distant and verboten northern divert options. Why? The 125 tailwind we’re riding. That forces a Hobson’s choice: divert earlier to a southern divert base arriving with less fuel into worse weather; or hope to sneak in after the last international Kennedy arrival. If you can wait. Do you feel lucky today, punk?

“I may be able to get one more jet into LaGuardia,” the controller tells the Miami boys. Sure: football takes priority over all things, at least in the northeast. But with the powerlines down, they can’t watch anyway, right?

Jill calls from the back again: “Our lady on oxygen just passed out again. The number four flight attendant is also a nurse, says she’s probably having some blood sugar problems.”

“She’s a nurse?” the F/O asks; “Could she look at this rash on my butt when she gets done there?”

I laugh but Jill doesn’t. “We’ll get her on the gate as soon as possible,” I promise. Still laughing, I tell the F/O cross cockpit. “Let’s grab that one spot he’s talking about–declare a medical emergency and tell them we need LaGarbage.”

We set up the approach; one shot, zero tailwind, some headwind, reliable braking action report or we go right to Kennedy either on the approach or on the missed approach (again, sorry, Lufthansa; this will only take a minute and we’ll be out of your way).

Sit the cabin crew down; the radar is showing angry purple in the frontal clash ahead and below. All checklists done early; anti-ice on. Hang on–she’s gonna buck.

Crappy ride through tangled air: a hundred knot wind out of the south clashes with the nor’easter roaring in with icy air; we’re in the atmospheric rapids, blinded by driven snow which has also not incidentally given me vertigo: looking through the geometric structure of the Heads Up Display on the glass before me, the horizontal snow has my senses screaming that we’re in a left bank of 20 to 30 degrees. And I’m hand flying because the speed changes have the nose pitching more than I’m willing to tolerate at a low altitude as the autopilot struggles to correct.

Patience, concentration; do the job. A glance at the ground speed shows 95 knots; airspeed is 135 knots; Mr. Math says it a 45 knot Nor’easter is winning near the surface. And the 95 knots is making this take a lot longer than I’d like.

The radio altimeter is calling out altitude until go-around; we’re down to a hundred feet above and still in the muck.

“Ground contact,” my F/O says; I pick it up peripherally but not ahead. There–the glow of lead in lights. “I have the runway;” I announce.

“Minimums,” the audible radio altimeter declares. Barely time to check the sink rate–god I love me some Heads Up Display–kick in the rudder to track the nose straight ahead; right main gear, then the left; the nose wants to slam down as max autobrakes grabs with 3,000 psi of hydraulics, but I hold the yoke in my lap, steering  with my feet. We stop.

“Tell ‘em the braking action is good,” I tell the F/O as we start running the after landing checklist. That’ll help the next guys in for planning purposes. Now all we have to do is park, turn around, and fight our way back into the air through de-ice and crappy runway problems.

But that headache is an hour away. A cup of coffee is waiting in the terminal–we’ll worry about the rest later.

Airport Smackdown: Jethead vs. LaGarbage

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight crew, flight delays, jet, jet flight, passenger, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2011 by Chris Manno

What better to beat the blistering heat of a Jethroplex summer than a float in your own ce-ment pond? You bid the later-in-the-day flights and you’re senior enough to hold them. That means the morning run–helps you sit still for the 6 or 7 hours you’ll be in the air–and an early afternoon swim. Then, reality check waiting on the iPhone:

You knew that. LaGarbage today, tomorrow too–then LAX the next day. That’s your work week. Get ready.

That’s the current radar picture in the New York metro area. The stuff just north of Tom’s River will be a problem if it doesn’t move out to sea. You can tell there’s a front line between Jersey and NYC somewhere–just look at the temperature difference. Cold air slipping under warm air produces big boomers, and it doesn’t take much of that to disrupt the inbound flow to Kennedy, Newark and of course, LaGuardia. Shrug. Deal with it when you get there–but prepare for it before you take-off: more fuel.

Of course, that’s a double-edged sword too: LaGuardia is a short runway with virtually no overrun on either end–just Flushing Bay. No, it’s not as extremely short as Burbank, John Wayne-Orange County or The Dreaded 33 in Washington (5,000′). But it’s short enough–especially if it’s wet–to make landing weight important. DFW: 13,000 feet of concrete, overruns and clear zones beyond. LaGarbage? A friction overlay on the end of 22 and 13, (wanna test that out?) murky water everywhere else.

Preserve your options: arrive with enough fuel for holding and a go-around. The 737 is a good stopping jet–as is the MD80–and the 737 is very stable on approach. No big worries about airspeed control or pitch.

Confer with Flight Dispatch: they have you flight planned in the mid-thirty thousands because of previously reported chop. Fine, but we’ll check ahead en route and decide if we can’t cruise higher and save more fuel. Plus, our route will arc north, then east, picking up more tailwind as we go. Should put us over upstate New York fat on fuel.

Board 160 passengers. Preflight. Taxi out. Climb.

Life settles down to cruise: fuel flow, ETAs, routing. As expected, the ride is reported smooth in the low 40s by aircraft there now, so we climb and save more fuel, plus put ourselves above most of the weather trying to build itself into the stratosphere from the sun’s climbing radiance.

Radar watch is beginning to turn up signs of the frontal clash converging on the northeast. Super radar–good picture out beyond 300 miles, has it’s own GPS so it knows where all topographical features are and screens them out of the radar image. Good to be sure that what we’re seeing is nothing but weather.

Lunch? Dinner? Whatever–it’s the last food you’ll see today. Everything at LaGarbage will either be closed or out beyond security, which you don’t have time for: they’ll be clamoring to board 160 passengers outbound as soon as you get there. Speaking of which, within an hour of landing, we can get the current weather at LaGuardia and print it out:

Fine. Planning on 22; landing south and into the wind, no real storm threats or complications. Set up nav aids, discuss the approach with the F/O. Verify the runway in the Flight Management System (FMS) and the Heads Up Display (HUD). Validate all of the altitude and airspeed restrictions on the arrival.

The FMS begins its backward countdown of miles to go and upward count of vertical velocity required to satisfy the arrival restrictions. Cool?

Not so fast. Just checking onto a new frequency and you hear holding instructions being given to some unlucky aircraft. Now, that either means someone south of you (Atlanta? Philly?) or someone north (Boston?) has an inbound backup. Or–it’s New York Center airspace that’s enjoying a traffic jam at altitude. You bring up the holding page on the FMS display. Here it comes.

“American 738, hold west as published at MIGET. Expect further clearance at  0115.” Figures. Well, okay–holding endurance? Like you haven’t thought of that already. At altitude, we’re at an incredibly low fuel burn.

We can loiter for the better part of an hour. One thing about EFCs (Expect Further Clearance) you can count on is–you can’t count on them. So plan accordingly. On your side is your altitude, fuel flow and fuel reserve. The jets cruising lower enter holding there and burn more fuel as a result. Set up the entry and the hold:

EFCs are a best guess by Air Traffic Control, but they can be very pessimistic. Even if you can’t hold as long as they predict, you can hold till your endurance runs out and you need to bingo (divert to your alternate). Some pilots I know like to “Go Ugly Early:” if you think there’s a good chance you’ll have to divert, beat the rush for fuel and a turnaround at the divert station.

I’d rather stay high and slow and see what shapes up. We all still divert when you reach Bingo fuel, it’s just a difference in strategy.

New York Center is offering “Rockdale,” a navigation point north of  LaGarbage and in Boston Center’s airspace. Get released from holding immediately and approach from the north is the deal they’re offering, and some jets are taking it. I don’t think so; we have a good, high altitude perch here with a low fuel burn. Rockdale requires a lower cruise, inevitably, with higher burn–and no guarantees when you get there. Sure, maybe Boston Center has less aircraft but you still have to eventually get sequenced into new York Center’s flow.

It’s like switching lines at the grocery store: pick the short line and someone will need a price check or will have a zillion coupons to verify. Meanwhile, some jets below are starting to Go Ugly early–Philly’s going to be a mess. And the winds are shifting at LaGarbage–they’re switching landing runways:

Refiguring the approach is not a big deal. But it’s a bad sign: runway changes take time and lead to a huge backup on the ground at LaGuardia. Plus shifting winds mean unpredictable weather due to frontal passage. Alright, plan “B” is the runway 4 approach. Reprogram the FMSs, the courses and the nav radios.

Holding is eating up fuel, which is actually easing the stopping distance–but check it anyway. And use the chart for a wet runway while you’re at it. Figure on the worst case and the most Autobrakes, say 3 or maybe even max.

More jets at the bottom of the stack are heading for Philly; we’re still sound fuel-wise. Patience.

Finally! Released from holding, cleared downline. Do the numbers: what fuel will you arrive with but more importantly, assuming a go-around at LGA, what will you land with at JFK (that’s the plan) after? Numbers show actually about a 1-2 thousand pound surplus. Perfect.

Now we’re committed–not going to climb back into the enroute sector (too much fuel burn). And now the glass shows what the radar has been painting.

The ugly blotches here are actually the towering cumulus we’re sinking into here:

Already have the crew strapped in, all passengers down. Actually, the bad weather is a relief in a way: everything slows down as radar separation is increased. Plus, the approach is a straight-in, precision approach rather than the hairpin visual approach that is officially called the “Expressway Visual:”

Lots more fun from a pilot standpoint, but definitely more hectic. Finally, the wide swing to finally. Configure. In the slot: altitude, airspeed, configuration, glide slope, localizer.

Minimums: see the runway, land carefully; immediate reverse.

Now, the elephant walk to the gate. Park.

No time for relaxing–it all starts again in 50 minutes, outbound with another 160 passengers impatiently waiting to board. The inbound holding and the LaGarbage ground congestion has already set us behind schedule, and passengers have connections to make at DFW.

That’s the workday–only another 1300 air miles to go. Let’s get to work.

Summer air travelers, beware: he’s out there!

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, jet flight, passenger, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2011 by Chris Manno

Summer air travelers, beware: he’s out there.

I mean that guy. The one who will make your travel a little less pleasant, probably unknowingly, but still.

For example, cruising at 40,000 feet northwest bound, the cabin interphone chimes. The First Officer and I exchange glances that ask hot, cold, or stupid? It’s too soon for crew meals—that’s where we’re stupid for eating them, but it’s something to do—and only minutes ago someone called to say it’s too hot in back.

Traditionally, within minutes, one of the other four Flight Attendants who don’t seem to be able to talk to each other will call and say it’s too cold.

But I answer the phone and this time, it’s stupid: “We just found a passport in seatback 30-A.” No, it’s not the flight attendant that’s stupid—it’s the passenger who on some previous flight for some odd reason decided to stash his passport in the seatback pocket.

Before our flight, the jet had come in from JFK. Maybe an international arrival, and now someone is enroute somewhere without a passport.

That’s where you come in: you’re in line at Mexican Customs in Los Cabos, and you’re sweating like a fat lady in a vinyl chair, waiting, waiting, waiting—because the guy ahead of you in line talking to the taciturn Customs agent is suddenly aware that he doesn’t have a passport. Your vacation is on hold just a little longer because like me in the super market, you got in the wrong line (“Price check on lane seven!”) while passengers to your right and left are breezing through and claiming their luggage (and maybe yours), heading for the beach.

Sure, it’s going to be worse for him—without a passport he’s not getting back into the United States without a major hassle and, you hope as payback for your delay, a strip search. But the lingering question is, why would anyone put anything of value in a seatback pocket on a plane?

But you’d be amazed at what you’d find back there after a flight. Well, what someone else would find back there: I’d sooner stick my hands into a trash can in a crack den than risk the snot rags and barf bags or kids’ diapers or half eaten ham sandwich that will be stuffed in there.

 

Still, people for some odd reason nonetheless sit down, empty their pockets, stash wallet, iPod, keys, camera, travel documents, passport—you name it, into the seatback pocket as if it were their glove compartment on their family car (okay, there may be a ham sandwich in mine, I admit).

Never mind the hassles going forward to recover a lost item, a headache made all the more difficult because the jet will crisscross several thousand of miles before the discovery of a missing item is made (call the lost and found in Seattle, Chicago and New York). The important thing is that the Stupid One is delaying your vacation.

And unbeknownst to you—he may already have delayed you. Remember sitting at the gate well past departure time? I can’t tell you how many times five or ten minutes from pushback to a resort destination in Mexico or the Caribbean when the agent steps into the cockpit and says “we have a problem.”

Let me guess: someone confirmed on the flight is in a bar somewhere starting on the umbrella drinks and about to miss their flight to the actual resort. Why? Because they can’t read a ticket? Don’t know their own itinerary? Can’t do the math on a time zone change? Are intellectually low functioning and were finished off by the TGI Friday’s Bloody Marys in the airport bar?

Doesn’t really matter. The point is, if they’re not on board we get to sit at the gate while the ground crew sorts through the cargo compartments crammed with the luggage of 160 passengers to pull their bags off. That takes a while. You get to wait, I get to wait, both of our days becomes a little longer.

Yes, it’s the lowest common denominator that dictates when we leave and when you arrive in paradise.

But there is justice in the situation, as I witnessed once at a departure gate as I waited for my inbound jet. Airport police officers had pulled a couple off to the side as passengers boarded a jet for Cancun.

Apparently the man and woman had been to the airport bar, and the man had clearly had a few too many. Federal law prohibits the boarding of any passenger who even appears to be intoxicated, and the airline agents had done the right thing: when in doubt, call law enforcement to sort out the situation in accordance with the law.

Sorry ma’am,” I heard an officer say as the man was being detained, “he’s going to be placed under arrest for public intoxication.”

I couldn’t hear the exact back and forth between the steamed woman and the officers, but in the end, it seemed the officers weren’t the cause of her anger: she grabbed her boarding pass, shot a pointed glance back at her handcuffed partner—then boarded the flight.

Just as well: he’d probably realize in the Customs line in Mexico that his passport was missing anyway.

Summer Storms, Airline Flight, and YOU as Captain.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, jet, jet flight, passenger, pilot, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2011 by Chris Manno

Well that’s going to be trouble, your air sense tells you as you wing westbound.

Because you have to turn around and come back once you reach LAX–and this stuff, you can feel it: it’s growing. In a few hours, it will stand between you and “homeplate”–DFW for you–and it will be your job to thread the needle between, above and around the towering wall of what will be full-blown thunderheads by the time you return.

But the weather-guessers say the storms will stay south and west of the Jethroplex, right?

Yeah, my ass. Sorry–been fooled before. Now, we deal with gut feel and radar. Forecasts? Farther out than a couple hours–pretty well useless. Keep flying.

LAX, first stop: got to have a cup of the strong Brioce Bakery coffee. Kind of crave it flying to LAX. Westbound passengers happily herding off; First Officer about his business on the ramp, catering, cleaners. You?

Stout cup of Brioce and radar, your best friend. Which helps you set up your next best friend: jet fuel.

But here’s where your air sense–and 17,000 flight hours–comes in: the storms forming up and marching west to east aren’t really a front passage. Rather, they’re a boundary collision that the cold front is barely strong enough to move. Those storms will stagnate wherever they form–my best guess–so there’s not going to be a quick close-then-open, 40-50 minutes of holding.

Hedge your bets: approach from the northwest in fact, route north over Albuquerque and see if you can beat the frontal passage, or be positioned to slip in immediately after. Plus, from behind the squall, all of your divert options will have a clear path. So in this case, northern route, an hour of holding fuel, see how it plays out.

The first round of bad news comes up on the data link printer in Arizona: “0300 DFW tempo 1ovc tstm lgtctcctg 34012g25 29.77 prsfr.”

Duh: “airport expecting one hundred overcast around 10pm in thunderstorms lightning cloud to cloud, cloud to ground; winds from the north gusting to 25, surface pressure falling rapidly.”

Trouble in front of the front. Cross the Rio Grunge eastbound, nice tailwind rocketing the aluminum tube across the ground at 500+ miles per hour.

My F/O is smart, sharp, quick. A good asset in forming a plan, then a backup, then another. I like options. I choose my words carefully: “Hey, you want any coffee? I’m buying?”

I like the way Angela makes coffee, the old-fashioned DC-10 technique: a splash of club soda on the bottom of the pot before brewing–eases the acidity, gives a smooth flavor. Hell, no rush here–I hate redoing stuff. The radar picture won’t be too well defined until about 300 miles out, even better at 160. Have a cup of Boeing brew and relax.

Okay, now we’ve got something to work with. Did I mention how much I love the 737-800 radar? It has its own GPS system, always plotting where it is–and it knows the terrain everywhere it finds itself and miracle: it screens out ground clutter–and does its own tilt for each range. What you see is what’s there–how cool and smart is that?

This picture is looking southeast. The blob over HIKAY is the nasty storm cell headed for the airport. As I figured, we’ll either beat it, or the airport will close–and it did as we approached 100 miles out. We expected that.

The good news is that we’re assigned a holding pattern over Wichita Falls. Sheppard has a couple of long runways and jet fuel available. Once we’re established in holding at 33,000 feet–a good altitude for fuel economy–I call the Sheppard tower on another radio: how late are you open tonight? How late is the fueler open?

Eleven o’clock for the tower, all night for the fueler. It’s just after 10pm. We’ve got fuel for 40, maybe 50 minutes of holding, then we need about 4,000 pounds to fly north to Oklahoma City.

But we’re right on top of Wichita falls/Sheppard. I can see it–perfect weather. No additional fuel for the divert–we just spiral down.F/O concurs. We start setting up navaids, approaches.

Our holding racetrack--right over an excellent divert spot.

DFW approach updates the airport re-opening projection: midnight.

The mass exodus begins from various holding stacks because no one has that much loiter fuel. Most on the north side are heading for Oklahoma City.  “Put Wichita Falls on request,” I tell the F/O, as we continue all divert prep and logistics with our dispatcher in Fort Worth.

We exit the holding stack northbound with a descent clearance, all of the divert notifications and nav system reprogramming done, approach briefed–we’re way ahead. The winking lights of two jets above us in the pattern suggest what I’d be thinking if I were them: “Smart bastards–first into Sheppard, first for fuel, first out.”

Yup.

Sheppard Approach: “Plan runway 33 center.”

Me: “Unable.” The center runway is 150 feet wide; our wingspan is around 130. The left runway is 300 feet wide–but the Air Force is using it for night traffic patterns in my ex-girlfriend:

Tough darts, wingnuts: when it was me in the Air Force flying the White Rocket, I’d have said tell the civilians to get lost–we’re busy here. Now, with 160 passengers and a crew of 7 on board, I think differently.

I’m doing the math, checking the descent rate and speed and distance–it’s all coming together nicely, “in the slot” as we say. Over the threshhold, follow the HUD cues projected before me on the glass; little narrow-gauge skid marks from smaller jets slide under the nose, then touchdown.

Clear the runway, set the brakes for a minute–whip out my cell phone and call the fueler, “Landmark Aviation.”

“How much fuel do you need,” asks a friendly voice. We have 5,800 pounds on board, I’d wag 3,000-4,000 to get to DFW, 3,000-4,000 more for delays. Plus some more thousands for peace of mind and the unexpected, two factors that usually don’t work well together.

“We need 12,000.”

“No problem, taxi on down.”

Tight maneuvering on narrow taxiways and a small transient ramp, but slowly, carefully, watching the wingtips–we park. I see the lights of two other airliners approaching from the south. Hah! The fuel truck is already here.

First Officer is outside, doing the exterior inspection. I’m on the phone with dispatch for a clearance plan, on the radio with tower for a proposed launch window, then with DFW approach for an expected route, then the phone again for current DFW weather.

My fuel guess is pretty good: dispatch wants us to have 15,000 pounds of fuel–we have 17,500. I love jet fuel.

Me signing for six tons of jet fuel.

Behind us, a Super-80 waits, an Airbus waiting behind him. I chat with the MD-80 captain in the quaint Wichita Falls terminal–he needs to have flight plan faxed to him; we printed ours on our on-board data link printer. I considered for a moment suggesting the dispatch send his to our jet, but I’m not even sure that’s possible. And we’re ready to blast off.

Supposedly, the terminal folks are on their way back and they’ll fire up the FAX machine for him and his 140 passengers. Too bad you ain’t on the Boeing, I thought but didn’t say.

Carefully, point by point, we check our route, then our performance data. Never mind that it’s nearly midnight, 11 hours into our workday–every single detail will be checked. I will see and he will crosscheck every number put into the performance system.

We start engines, a ground man pulls the chocks and salutes: clear to go.

I have a better idea. We sit with brakes parked and accomplish all pre-takeoff checklists so that I don’t have divided attention taxiing out over the mini-sized taxiways.

Tower clears us for take-off. One last check of numbers–the runway, the rotate speed, the weight, the power setting, all check out. Stand up the throttles, all exterior lights on, punch the take-off power button on the throttles and she leaps forward with a growl.

Off the nose, black sky, more storms; cloud to cloud and cloud to ground lightning weaving a brilliant latticework to the south, where we’re going. Dead ahead, more spot decisions, plans, backups, numbers, radar and ultimately, maybe a cup of coffee to go for the drive home once we navigate the weather gauntlet.

But nothing’s set in stone; we’ll just see what’s what when we get to DFW. The coffee and DFW will just have to wait, but I’m patient, and careful. All in good time–despite all pressures to the contrary, all passenger and crew urgency, fatigue; I tune it all out. Every step carefully, thoughtfully–that’s what summer flying is all about.

Quite a light show in the DFW terminal area, and the hurdles spring up one by one, then in droves. Weird, but I kind of like the challenge. But that’s another story.

Summer Air Travel: 3 Things You Need To Know.

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airliner, airlines, flight delays, jet, jet flight, passenger, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2011 by Chris Manno

You’re traveling by air this summer? Good. But there are a few things you should know and be sure of BEFORE you get to the airport. And, of course, some shortcuts and time-savers and more things you should be aware of once you get to the airport to avoid an ugly surprise on check-in.

Because it’s not enough to just show up on time any more. In fact, without attending to the things I list below, you’re really gambling with your trip and whatever you’d planned at your destination. Airlines typically have higher load factors in the summer, which means fewer seats available on every jet, and this summer has started with record-breaking crowds vying for seats.

Combine that with tight customer service staffing and you have the makings of a travel headache–which is preventable. Read on.

1. Get your seat. Yes, I know: you booked your flight. That’s not the same thing as having a seat. Made your reservation on-line? Be sure there is a specific seat listed–and check again 48 hours prior to departure. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at the gate, trying to look inconspicuous, as an agent tries to explain to a passenger that no, they don’t have a seat assignment–and the flight is overbooked. Often, when reservations are made way in advance, there’s isn’t a specific seat listed–or between “way in advance” and the day of travel, the seat assignment disappears. To prevent that: print your boarding pass at home with the seat assignment–don’t wait until airport check-in. If you don’t see a seat assignment on your on-line boarding pass–get on-line and reserve a seat, even if you have to call the airline’s toll free number to do so.

2. Know your status. That is, are you protected from cancellations or delays? If you have a deadline at your destination–say, a time sensitive event (wedding, graduation, business meeting, etc) or follow-on reservations (a resort or cruise booking, or flight on another carrier), what  protection do you have in the event of a delay or cancellation?

Be aware that most airlines offer compensation or modified travel in the event of situations within their control (say, flight cancellations or mechanical delays), but most people don’t seem to know that airlines and federal regulations do not stipulate any accommodation for weather-related delays or cancellations. Thunderstorms at a major hub, in summer–what are the chances? Pretty darn good, unfortunately. And along with rain, hail, and damaging winds, storms usually bring delays, cancellations and misconnects.

Are you prepared to sleep on the floor of the terminal if weather delays you inbound and the last flight of the day to your destination has already departed? Don’t plan tight connections–or in my opinion, any connections to the last flight of the day, for exactly that reason. But if you must, be prepared to find an airport hotel on your own or, sleep in the terminal. Ugh.

One further note about “knowing your status,” and this is important: did you buy your ticket from an online source other than the airline itself? If so, read the “conditions of carriage” before you agree to the purchase of a ticket: many of the larger online travel sites sell bargain basement seats–but they are for a specific flight, with no recourse if you miss the flight. In other words, the deeply discounted seat does not come with any airline follow-on obligation–that’s how the online site got the cheap pricetag they sold you on. But again, if you misconnect for any reason, your travel is over.

No “stand-by” on the next flight or travel at another time or date. You agreed to buy a particular seat on a particular day and if you’re not in that seat when the plane departs, you have no further recourse with the airline–and good luck with the online agency you booked your travel through.

In both of these cases: trip insurance. It’s not that expensive and may be your only way to protect yourself from large out-of-pocket expenses due to missed bookings and events at your destination, or overnight delays enroute.

3. Damage control: when things start to go haywire due to delays, weather, cancellations or diversions, you need to act immediately. Before you leave home, do two simple things to ensure that you’re first in line when it comes to salvaging your travel plans.

First, sign up for whatever notification app your airline offers. Not only will this automatic function give you an immediate heads-up on your assigned gate and departure time via text message or email, many major airlines will also notify you of a cancellation or significant departure or arrival delay long before the delay appears on monitors in the terminal.

Why is that important? The advanced notice will allow you to find the next available flight to your destination and then pursue a confirmed seat before your fellow passengers even know there’s a reason to change. First come, first served when it comes to accommodating passengers from a cancelled flight.

Which brings us to the second must-do: pre-program the airline’s re-booking number into your phone for quick access. The re-booking number is NOT the same as the reservations or flight information phone numbers. Find it on your airline’s website or call their toll-free number and ask for it, then keep it handy on your trip. The alternative to calling the re-booking number is to stand in a long line of irritated passengers waiting for a few agents to fix things one at a time. Skip that–get on the re-booking line at the first sign of trouble.

Want to play Superman? Turn your cell phone on as soon as allowed after landing. You’ll be notified by text or email of any cancellation on your itinerary–then you can call the re-booking number on taxi-in and start damage control to save your trip. Same goes for the hours before your origination–keep listening for the text alert regarding your flight. Even if things go well, you’ll want to know what gate you’re scheduled to depart from. In all cases, have your reservation info handy for re-booking–an agent on the phone or face-to-face can access your itinerary instantly if you can provide the record identifier (usually a series of letters and/or numbers) on first contact.

It’s going to be a busy summer for air travel this year, with record crowds and limited customer service options in the case of weather-related delays. But these three simple steps will put you well ahead of the crowd all rushing to rebook flights or deal with a delay. Secure your seat, know your options, stay informed and be ready to rebook.

Number one above–seat assignment–is even more crucial if you’re traveling with others and want or need to sit together. Number two, know your passenger status and your options. And finally, line up your damage control options and beat the rush to re-book or make changes as the situation develops.

Once you’re on board and we’re off the gate, your work is done and I’ll take care of the rest of the flight. And as I say after every welcoming P.A., “Sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.”

Your Kids On An Airliner, Flying Alone? Do It Right.

Posted in air travel, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, flight delays, food, jet, parenthood, passenger, travel, travel tips, unaccompanied minors with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2011 by Chris Manno

Little big man standing by the gate, already gone.

Mom’s there, the pain of the thousand miles about to shove themselves between her and the boy draws her eyes into a squint that you know damn well is there for a reason. But he’s already gone, his eyes set elsewhere, the leaving now a mere formality etched in stone beyond his reach or doing. The flight migration of the solo kids: coast to coast, north to south, the sad winds of divorce carry kids aloft.

It’s year round but especially heavy around Memorial Day. Holidays? Summer? Solomon: two halves of one is still less than a whole. But it’s all we got–decreed; so chin up, little nomad.

Way too familiar, and I’m too foolish to pretend I don’t notice. Last minute, before boarding myself and stepping into the cockpit, staying out of everyone’s hair until about ten minutes prior to push, I do what I can. Mom’s there, bereft, dying a little inside, not even hiding her pain. What can I do?

I’ll get to that. But more importantly, what can you do if you’re the parent sending off your child?

According to the Department of Transportation, more than seventy thousand minors will fly unaccompanied this year. Big Fact Two, according to Parenting Magazine, is that parental preparation will make all the difference for those children who do fly solo this year.

There, the authorities have spoken. Now, hear me, the guy standing on the bridge on both ends of the voyage.

First, parents: ante up. All major airlines now have programs to care for kids who fly “Unaccompanied,” or “UM:” Unaccompanied Minor.” They are not not free. But they are essential. Your child will be logged in to the system, your credentials and those of whomever is on the other end will be verified. So whoever picks up your child will be positively identified by official documentation: driver’s license, passport or government issued ID. I watch it every week: our flight attendants will walk your child out and verify that they are delivered to the correct person.

Mid flight? You say you’ve booked them on a thru-flight, meaning no aircraft change enroute? GMAB! I can’t tell you how many times my flight sequence from one coast to the other, same flight number, supposedly same aircraft, gets changed. “Take all of your belongings of the plane,” the agent will say on the P.A., “and proceed from this terminal to the new gate in the other terminal.”

Saved $100 bucks on the U.M. fee, did you, because “TravelSuperDuper.com” promised you a stop but no aircraft change? Don’t even think about it. Because no, the flight attendants won’t take care of the switch because they might not even be scheduled on that next flight. Want to see if your little one can navigate a major airport? Pay the fee.

What you get it this: signatures and verification will follow your child every step of the way. Do I know how many kids are flying alone on my jet? No. Do I know how many officially designated Unaccompanied Minors are on my flight? You bet I do–just as with any special or hazardous cargo or armed individuals, I know who and where they are. And I take it one step further, as I do with armed passengers: I don’t care what I’m “supposed” to be doing, I’ll take the time during boarding to meet eye to eye, say, hello, and tell an Unaccompanied, or “UM” as we call them, by name “we’re glad you’re here. It’s going to be a good flight and if you need anything, you let us know.”

Important to me, hope it is to them. Regardless, when we have the UM vouchers, now my crew knows who they are and where they’re sitting. And someone will hand-carry them to where they need to be.

But even more practical, in my experience, is that the UM process allows you to accompany your child through security and to their boarding gate, as well as permitting someone you designate (have their driver’s license number or other government issued ID info when you check in) meet them at their arrival gate.

Second, send them on board calorized. That is, make sure they’ve eaten recently or have with them some snacks they can manage. Yes, there’s “buy on board” food on many flights–but the transaction is cashless: credit card only. Make sure they have water when they board too–get it on the secure side of the airport because you can’t take it through security.

Pack them sensibly: make sure their bag that they take on board is manageable for them. Don’t count on someone else handling their bag, and make it one that can fit under the seat in front of them, as little ones won’t have much luck with the overhead bins. Anything else you need to send with them–check it at the ticket counter.

Do this: Google “airlines” and “unaccompanied minors,” and be sure to read the airline of your choice’s procedures, plus the many decent parenting articles with tips on UM travel–like this big one I’m going to give you: say your good-byes at home. That’s what the kids are leaving, and that’s where they’ll return. The airport is part of the journey–don’t make it part of the good-bye. Be matter of fact from that point and it will be easier for you and your child.

And finally, show up. I mean on the receiving end, and I mean on time. Flashback, Christmas Eve, a west coast destination, late evening. Our little trooper is standing by the ticket agent as the crew deplanes. The agent has her paperwork, waiting for a late parent. On Christmas Eve. Twenty minutes after our arrival. And we were late.

My crew is tired. Our van is at the curb waiting to take us to the hotel–but nobody’s leaving our little UM. We wait. We hate the parent who didn’t leave two hours early and camp out so as to meet our child at the gate. Be there, whatever it takes.

Back to our departure. Mom ready to crater, her son already on my jet. I approached her from behind.

“We’ll take good care of him. It’ll be all right.” I’m lying. It’s the heart fractured into a thousand shards of smoked glass, hers, that will never be all right ever again. He’ll be okay–the kids usually are once they’re under way. They do their leaving before pushback; the parents are left on the death watch in the terminal. And kids on some level perceive that–so like I said, good-byes are best said at home.

“Look,” I offered, “you want me to call you when we get there? To let you know everything’s fine?’

She put her number into my phone, in tears. I walked onto my jet fighting mine. Parents everywhere get to do this, as some court decreed, over and over till the kids are old enough to decide travel and visitation details for themselves. It’ll never be easy–but make it the best it can be: set them up to be cared for enroute.

I texted the woman after we arrived, watching her little guy walk away with his “other family,” and I imagine she breathed a little easier. Not sure, but I know I did.

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