The “Whys” of Airline “Ground Stops” For Passengers

For many passengers, flying is an unfamiliar, sometimes confusing experience made all the more so by the lack of understanding of inconveniences like ground delays.

Often it seems such take-off delays are arbitrary (the sky is clear and blue; let’s go!) and unfounded–but if you understood the reasons behind departure delays, you could at least keep your blood pressure low and your patience intact.

The most common–and often dreaded–delay term you might hear regarding your take-off is “Ground Stop,”  which means you are not being allowed to take-off or more succinctly, your flight is stopped on the ground at your departure airport.


Multiple reasons. The most common is that the destination weather is such that the the number of inbound aircraft the Air Traffic Control can sequence is restricted or reduced.

Why? Well, the most common problem is a low ceiling and visibility that requires expanded spacing between aircraft.

Why more spacing? Because if we as pilots can separate ourselves from other aircraft visually on an approach and landing, we need only five miles of separation. If we’re flying in reduced visibility, that separation requirement at least doubles to ten miles. That cuts down the number of arrivals possible per hour.

But it could also be a beautifully clear day and capacity could be limited by winds. If the wind velocity or even gusts approaches the crosswind limitation of most aircraft–normally around 30 knots–then some runways may be unusable.

Why? This happens at DFW now and then because of the seven runways, five are oriented north-south, two are northwest to southeast. Doing the math, two runways rather than seven handling arrivals will of course mean delays.

The Ground Stop is a temporary way to shut off the flow of inbound aircraft until such time as either the limiting condition dissipates at the destination field–and that could be the low ceilings and visibility, winds or a thunderstorm. The last problem–a storm–can also cause a ground stop for your destination even after it passes.

Why? Sometimes it becomes a question of real estate: if a storm at your destination has stopped their outbound aircraft from taking off, there often is simply no room to taxi and park a slew of inbound aircraft. This is particularly true at small, congested airports like LaGuardia and Washington Reagan, but even large airports like DFW can become gridlocked as well.

And if the condition slowing things down is icing, there really is no point in allowing too many aircraft in.

Why? Because once an aircraft is de-iced, a take-off must be accomplished promptly or the deicing fluid loses its effectiveness and the plane needs to be de-iced over again.

What about when you’re told there’s an “outbound Ground Stop” for your airport? Rare, but it happens.

Why? From a pilot standpoint, the airport isn’t exactly “closed.” But the problem becomes the departure corridor: if the radar controllers can’t find a clear path for departing aircraft, they simply don’t allow any departures. But sometimes when your airport’s weather is fine, the departures from another nearby airport might cause a temporary shutdown of your airport’s departures.

Airways crammed into the east and northeast.

Why? Well, as in the case of JFK, Newark, and LaGuardia, or Baltimore, Washington, and Dulles, or Chicago O’Hare and Midway, DFW and Love Field, or San Francisco International and Oakland and San Jose, and LAX and any of the dozens of airports there–if one field has bad weather, particularly thunderstorms, their inbound and outbound aircraft have to maneuver off of the normal routing in order to avoid thunderstorms. Air Traffic Control will wisely limit the number of new aircraft added to the mix.

On-board radar display: no take-off clear path.

Really, a Ground Stop makes sense when you think about it. Because the limiting condition at your destination would still exist whether you take-off or hold on the ground. So the problem with allowing the take-off even though the landing field is restricted is that you end up with a larger risk of delay.

Why? Because if the delay inbound is absorbed in the air, that means holding. If holding time is projected to be over a half hour or maybe even forty-five minutes, the end result will be a diversion.

Why? Well, because there’s only so much fuel we can carry en route since every aircraft has a maximum landing weight. If you add an extra hour’s worth of fuel–about 10,000 pounds on my jet–but then it turns out that you don’t need it to hold enroute, you could easily be too heavy to land. Guess what happens then: you will get to hold until you burn off the excess fuel, which is a tremendous waste and will guarantee that some connecting passengers’ next flight will depart without them.

Plus, in my pilot mind, after about forty minutes of holding, my air sense tells me it’s time to find a better place to land. It’s simply not prudent from a pilot standpoint to arrive at an alternate without extra fuel for contingencies there. And if we do have to divert, depending on how long my crew and our duty day has been, the FAA may mandate that we’re done flying for the day–which means you are too, wherever we are.

But all of that can be avoided by holding on the ground at our departure airport, burning no fuel. As frustrating as that may seem, the alternative is actually worse and really, taking-off without a good probability of being able to land at your intended destination doesn’t really sound like a good idea, does it?

I have to say, some crewmembers don’t even understand all of the Ground Stop factors I just explained and certainly, most passengers don’t either.

But the wise passengers like you who understand this “big picture” explanation of the dreaded Ground Stop can just take a deep breath, nod wisely and be confident that they’re on the optimum route to their destination.

28 Responses to “The “Whys” of Airline “Ground Stops” For Passengers”

  1. Our flight from SAT-IAH was involved in a ground stop last September when South Texas was being hit by Tropical Storm Hermine. We were on the ground in San Antonio for about 3 hours or so before we were able to take off for our quick flight to Houston. We missed out connecting flight to BOS but you’re right, I would have much rather been on the ground in the terminal than in a holding pattern somewhere.

    • Absolutely, because at least if you absorb the delay on the ground you don’t run the risk of having to divert, which will easily at least double the delay.

  2. Well Good Captain, this old fart has more than enough hours and miles with an uncomfortable jet seat strapped to his butt to understand exactly what you say. I got it, I understand it and I do not object. What I DO object to is when your operations folks/gate agents board and push-back anyway (to achieve some time stardard?) knowing full well that we ain’t going flying anytime soon. Rather than ‘hold’ the pax in the terminal, they jam us on, push back and thn park someplace, hoping that the delay is less than the now magic three hours. That, good sir, thoroughly pisses me off. And you know darn well that it happens. In the event of a Ground-Stop order, the ops and agent folks ought to translate that into a No-Board order as well. Airplanes are intended to move people from point A to point B, not store them at Point A. And no, I won’t buy the excess ground time argument. We both know that an airplace that is otherwise ready to fly can be boarded and pushed-back in less than 15 minutes. As for the extra fuel burn and/or diversion arrangements, I am 100% in your corner, sir. You cannot have too much fuel, except that yes, you can. I guess that’s why they employ very smart dispatchers and even smarter captains. And when the stuff really does hit the fan, staying on the ground (and in the terminal) at the point of origin, is generally of less inconvenience to everyone than is landing at some unintended airport. And a damn sight less expensive for the line. And that’s my two cents worth. As always, a very fine, interesting post. Thanks. -C.

    • Actually, you’re wrong on several counts. First, there’s no pushback to meet a schedule or an on-time goal, because the DOT stats allow you to reschedule under those conditions (ATC delay). There’s no advantage to the airline to push and “hope it’s less than the magic three hours.”

      That’s the second area where you’re off-target. I can only speak as an American Airlines captain, but we use two hours as the return time so as to never go near the three hour DOT limit which then requires the airline to essentially sell the jet to pay the fine which can total in the millions of dollars. So there’s absolutely no upside to an airline even getting near the limit, but the downside for passengers is when the flight’s cancelled, they essentially have no more rights other than stand-by on the rest of the day’s flights–most of which are in the 80% load factor. So my 160 passengers, if we’re cancelled, aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Is that better or worse than sitting on the tarmac for 4 hours? You tell me–that’s a passenger call.

      We often board and sit at the gate, but we (I) make it clear that all passengers are free to deplane at any time–the door is open and the DOT clock is not running. But it IS standard procedure when there’s a ground stop to take it on the gate–with the door open. Want to deplane? Feel free. Monday night, as storms rolled through DFW, various groups were deplaning, buying food in the terminal, then bringing it back on board. Once the storms cleared, we were off the gate and in the air in about 30 minutes total.

      And finally, no, 160 passengers can’t be boarded, bags stowed and seated in 15 minutes. I wish that were true, but in my 25+ years of doing this job, that seldom happens.

      • Chris, Thank you! I stand corrected on more than a couple of things. With a I can understand you line’s two hour limit (FAA’s three) and not wanting to sell the damn airplane! I also like that open-door policy while you are on ground hold. That said, often due to the need to vacate the gate for in-bound flights, they do button up and move off, while still under a hold order. That to is OK, but all too often the details and realistic time estimates are not shared with the self-loading cargo. We can all wish that the details and options were shared with all, and we know better. I absolutely argee with you that cancelling a flight, especially with loads of 80% and often much higher can be a big hiccup for everyone, it is still better than delivering those 100-200 folks to a diversion city. And, as unpopular as it may be, simply cancelling the flight gets the line off-the-hook for all of those nasty obligations and penalties. Flight cancellations are way up and no reasonable soul can find any fault with that. Simply cancelling the flight is often the only viable choice. I maintain that cancellation in place is still better than diverting – and I don’t think that I need to explain that. As for the boarding, thing, I was thinking more like 120 PAX and with the bags already done. One of your no-frills competitors can turn a 120 seat plane (with pax and bags off and Pax and bags on) in 30″. If the bags are already on and it is just the SL cargo, – folks well informed about the delay and ready to board and buckle quickly (or face a cancellation) of course it can be done.
        Again, thanks for explaining some of the details. When I get corrected (professor) I learn something and I like learning. As complicated as jete driving may be, fitting a single flight into the great maze of ATC has caused more than one to suffer a serious brain fart. In the end, the best course is to always keep the SL cargo well informed and, when appropriate, explain any options. It does not happen that way as often as it should. I am sincerely greateful that I no longer have to fly as much as I did 10, 15, 20 years ago. Trust me: From my seat (which may well be closer to yours than most of the other seats) routine domestic flying is *not* a pleasant experience. I take some comfort in knowing that it is probably safe and I guess that has to be good enough.
        I’m on your side, Captain. Keep it safe, do it right and keep on blogging! -C.

    • Captainjman Says:

      As an airline captain myself, let me tell you why in CERTAIN situations it makes total sense to load up and park for a long time. In some airports, like O’hare in Chicago, when weather at both ends is causing delays and ground stops – the gate areas fill with people to the point there isn’t even room to stand …

      • Hey sorry, but your comment is longer than my post.

        And more than a little out-of-date. The law now prescribes fines that for a full 737, amount to over $2 million per plane per incident.

        Beyond the fact that as a captain I’m really not inclined to lessen terminal crowding by boarding (seriously? Did you consider asking the flight attendants how they feel about managing a full jet sitting on the ground indefinitely?), the fact is that the congress has decided what passengers want, and that apparently is to NOT sit on an airplane. So be it.

  3. As a pilot and occasional passenger, I would far rather be down here wishing I was up there, than up there wishing I was down here.
    The point made by Cedarglen about premature load and pushback is a valid one. However, I would not like to put money on a fifteen minute load and pushback unless with military pax who don’t faff about before they plant their butts. I have travelled on flights where I would cheerfully have shot half my fellow travellers and heaved their carcasses onto the tarmac in the interest of efficiency.

    • Actually, our policy is exactly opposite of what he stated, but I only fly for American and can only reference what I know here.

      You’re right about boarding–it’s a very laborious process, especially in seasons and destinations where a lot of personal belongings are necessary (e.g., O’hare in January–parkas!) and when the trend is to not check a bag. That’s just life–we adjust boarding time accordingly.

      The other variable I didn’t mention is the “Wheels Up” time. You often have an ATC assigned launch window that’s minutes long if you’ve been given a slot time. No way to hang out in the terminal then expect to board and make the time in “15 minutes.”

      • Thanks Chris -and robert! Cedareglen is paying attention and the old fart may even learn something. Is this FUN – or what . -C.

  4. I do really like this post; explaining some of the reasons why flights have ground stops and why flights might be delayed. I can honestly say, in my world travels, I have never ever had a flight depart late. Arrive late? Now that is a whole different topic!!! Thanks!

  5. […] asked and was told we were on "Air Traffic Control Hold" whatever the hell that means. This will explain what ATC Holds or Ground Stops are […]

  6. Thanks for the post, Captain Manno.

    Just take big, deep breaths and ride it out. Works for me, and I’m a big control freak. 🙂

  7. Jesus Calderon Says:

    Hi Chris and fellow readers, as a Tower controller (in Barcelona Intl. Spain) I’ve seen countless reasons for a traffic (flight) to be kept on the ground. I’ll explain one that happened to me (as local control ie clearing aircrafts to land and takeoff) last week, that could hardly be understood by passengers without a reeeally good captain’explanation. It was an Air Europa’s B737-800 departing Barcelona bound for Madrid. That flight was kept on the gate initially for about 30 minutes, due to the slot (wheels up time) that had been assigned to it by Eurocontrol’s flow department in Belgium, because of some thunderstorms in the vicinity of Madrid. At Barcelona we have a calculated taxi time from the gate to the holding point of the active runaway of 15 minutes if there is no congestion on the taxiways, wich was the case. According to that, 15 min prior to its slot, the B737 was cleared to start and push away from the gate. Before continuing, I must recall that the passengers had already waited in their seats for about half an hour, because they boarded the plane on time and the pilot had reported to clearance delivey that they were ready to go according to the flight plan so he requested that we (controllers) send to Eurocontrol a “READY MESSAGE” via our computer, which means that the flight is fully ready to go so in the event of an improvement of the situation, if the possibility emerges, they would like to have an earlier slot assigned. But that of course means keeping everybody seated and ready to close the doors because if an earlier slot is assigned in response to the ready message, and then the flight looses it as they were not fully ready to moove, then the system treats that flight like a “cheater” and puts it in the back of the pack. Ok lets move on, the ready was not effective so they had to wait the 30 min between their flight planned start-up time and the one given by the slot. After taxiing to the holding point, I gave them the instruction to line up the runaway and wait (taxi into position and hold for americans ;P) behind an already departing traffic. As the previus aircraft started to roll down the runaway, my supervisor informed me that flow department had informed of the thunderstorm growing over Madrid, with hail and windshear, so their incoming traffic rate was zero and therefore no more traffic could depart to Madrid. I queekly amended the instruction to the Air Europa and told them to hold their position out of the runaway and give way to other traffics as they had to be grownded until flow decision to accept traffic again. I then explained them the situation and asked them how much fuel time they had to wait in the holding point, wich happened to be 15 more minutes. During this time, flow issued new slot times for traffic bound for Madrid approach, which allowed for a departure not before one more hour. Then we looked for the closest to the holding point free parking position for the Air Europa to taxi in and refuel, and start the wait for its slot time or an improvement…again.
    And that’s the way it was for those folks. Nothing really not understandable for the passengers, but really taugh to explain for the crew, to whom I tried to help as much as I could…as always!
    Sorry for the long reading, hope it pays off! 😉

    • I think we changed to Line up and wait due to rest of world using it not sure will have to ask

      • It’s standard ICAO and really, it’s less syllables than “taxi into position and hold.”

      • David Abbey Says:

        The less syllables, the better. I got used to hearing Line Up And Wait within a week or so of when it started. Also, consistency and standard phraseology is ATC and a pilots friend. Chris, nice job guest co-hosting on the AGP.

      • I actually like “line up and wait,” and no one has mangled it into slang like “posit and hold,” sloppiness I always hated.

  8. blue dart tracking…

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  9. Sitting on the tarmac after bring told we’re being held due to a full ground stop at LAX. Thanks for the explanation – it’s much more helpful than what our pilot said.

  10. Thanks for a well presented explanation of a ground stop it helped pass 15 minutes of my current ground stop on aa2378 at lax waiting for ago ground stop tone lifted

  11. More proof (as though more were needed) that “Landings Are Mandatory”, so EVERY flight WILL land, eventually.

    The ONLY important questions are “when?”, “where?” and “how big a bump?”.

  12. PHLustered Says:

    Really? With all the advancements in aviation we still rely on line of sight to navigate these behemoths? Surely there is technology that could be used/developed to avoid ground stops and deal with low ceilings. Lindbergh didn’t have windows in the Spirit. Our big contribution was to install windows treatments in the cockpit?

    • Lindbergh was the only airplane in the sky, so of course there were neither delays or ground stops. Line of sight has nothing to do with it–we have “around the corner” precision guidance on board. The problem is traffic volume, which when combined with capacity and weather, limits traffic flow. Haven’t seen window treatment in the cockpit, but curtains would be nice.

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