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.

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