Airline 101: “Why couldn’t you hold the flight?”

I was standing by the gate counter yesterday, printing my flight plan and other required paperwork for my flight to San Francisco, when a pair of businessmen hustled up to the gate, out of breath.

“Tokyo? That flight departed on-time twenty minutes ago,” the agent told them.

One guy threw his bags down in disgust. The other pleaded his case. “We were late on your flight out of Chicago. You couldn’t hold the Tokyo flight for us?”

Uh-oh; I’ve heard this one a few times, and it never ends well.

“I’m sorry,” the agent answered honestly. “We had to depart on time. We’ll give you a hotel room tonight and put you on the flight tomorrow.”

Here’s where I could have explained–if it was any of my business–but I kept my yap shut, finished my flight planning and scooted down to my jet. Because I’ve learned that “why couldn’t/didn’t/can’t you hold the flight” isn’t really a question anyone who missed a flight actually wants answered. They really just want to chew the ass of anyone convenient and while I understand the passengers’ frustration, most at that point are either not listening or find little solace in the answer. But here it is.

On a DFW-Tokyo flight, the clock ticks in several significant ways and yes, fifteen or twenty minutes either way are make or break–especially on international flights. Here’s why.

I’ll start with the flight crew. The FAA limits on-duty time for pilots for one good reason: as pilots, we have to perform perfectly for every take-off and landing. The landing, in an international flight scenario, is often done upwards of 12-14 hours after your pilots started their day. That’s because Tokyo-Narita with some wind conditions pushes the flight time to that limit–there is no twenty minutes of slack to wait. Do you want your pilots at the ragged edge, sleepless in the main, for more than 14 hours before they face the delicate approach and landing through European or Asian weather? In the mountain bowl of south America after flying all night?

I hate to say it, but the same problem exists on domestic flights: your pilots may have started their day in Boston, flown to Miami, then DFW and no, they do not have 20 minutes to spare before there’s either a crew change or a cancellation on your LAX or SFO flight. And with both international and domestic flights, there are connections to consider: many on-board will miss their arrival city connection if the flight is delayed to accommodate late passengers. This is crucial–and heartbreaking–departing DFW for other gateway cities like LAX, JFK or Chicago where folks are trying to connect to an international flight. There may be other enroute or destination factors that add an inbound delay–we can’t start out behind the timeline in deference to connecting passengers already on board–and at our destination waiting on their outbound flight and downline connections.

It’s even worse on an international segment, because on a flight of 12-16 hours like Tokyo, Rio, or Delhi, a headwind even 10% greater than planned can add significant misconnect risk in the destination cities. Holding a flight “just ten or twenty minutes” is playing roulette with hundreds of other passengers’ travel plans, plus the FAA limits on flight crew on-duty times.

And here’s the final twist most passengers don’t know or probably, really don’t care about: ALTREVs.

Huh? Yes, another aviation acronym you can add to your lexicon: Altitude Reservation. The airways across the Atlantic and Pacific are crowded and every airline naturally wants the optimum, shortest, wind-friendliest flight path across the pond. Since all the jets can’t fit into that same optimum lane in the sky at the same time, flights are assigned a track time–and you’d better be there at that time.

Same factors affect that as well: greater headwinds, weather deviations, or rerouting in the 3-4 hours over the US before “coasting out” (another cool term for you, “coasting out” = “at the coast, outbound”) can play havoc with your arrival at the track entry point. Early is no problem–just slow down inbound. But late? You can be sent across at a lower, slower, longer track altitude and course which again plays havoc with arrival times, connections, and the aircraft’s outbound leg with yet another set of passengers with preset arrival times and connections on their itineraries.

So there it is: your flight is just one thread in the complex tapestry that is an airline flight with passenger connections, crew duty limits, and track times to be maintained, and each segment is part of the larger rhizome that is an airline operation: it’s all intertwined and interdependent. There’s really no way to build in enough flex time (for example, 14 hours is both the limit and the flight time on some segments and many, many crew days) to “just hold the flight.”

Yes, sometimes we can–and we sure do! That would be in the case of a destination with no connections and probably at the end of the day (who connects in Des Moines?) if the crew time was not a limiting factor.

See why I didn’t try to explain all this to the understandably distraught business guys?  But maybe they–like you–would feel a little more at ease if they understood the big picture answer to “why couldn’t you hold the flight?”

And now you do, so share that with others who might need to know–I’ll be down at the jet pre-flighting, because we really need to depart on time, don’t we?


10 Responses to “Airline 101: “Why couldn’t you hold the flight?””

  1. Cedarglen Says:

    As always, another good post, Chris. Frankly, it is not one of you best, but I cannot be, short of writing a book. Why? It is too ‘pilot-centric.’ The reasons that you cite are all perfectly correct, yet only the tip of the iceberg. Even a domestic flight involves dozens of in-house department and multiple external organizations, all trying to keep that network of thousands of flights leaping through the air more-or-less on schedule. If those two fellows from Chicago have the moxey to be doing business in Tokyo, they probably understand enough of the logistical constraints to know that the trans-pac flight cannot and will not be held just for them. They are frustrated, even angered and by conditions that (in this case) are beyond their control. They are venting a little steam and, as soon as they settle into their provided rooms (perhaps with an adult beverage) they will cool down. And of course, escaping to you own waiting jet was EXACTLY the right choice. As you have learned, it is not possible to satisfy a displaced customer who is venting steam or worse, simple because their ears are not functional. You could hav explained some of the detail that you posted above, but precious little of it could be retained while they remained in vent mode. You took exactly the right action, escaping the situation and running for your own jet, if only to keep your own little part of the Master Schedule as on-time as possible. In the end, there are very good reasons that Gate Agents don’t fly the airplanes – and pilots don’t staff the gates. I’m on your side, dude. When it is a no-win situation and not your job, running like hell is not the wrong course of action!
    Happy Holiday.. -Craig

    • If you listened to the “Fearful Flyer” podcast, you know my thinking on this: in the decision matrix, “connections” have no place in a go-no go or land/go-around decision. So I do isolate from the customer service realm, concentrating solely on good airmanship and strict flight standards.

      Thanks for summing it up so well.

      • Cedarglen Says:

        I did hear it (great!) and frankly I’m glad to know that you try to isolate yourself from the other concerns, ‘when the engines are running.’ Those ‘important’ connections lose their importance if the pax or the airplane are damaged during an unwise or rushed landing. By employing you and others with a similar outlook, you employer is getting one heck of a good deal. Regards, -C.

  2. Good reading for all those who don’t have the big picture of what goes into the scheduling of flights and repercussions that may arise because of delays. Well done Chris.

  3. I love that old AA paint job with the lightning bolt…. I didn’t know that they had a ship flying with it.

  4. The best time killer at an airport is hanging out at international departure gates where flights have closed…over and over the types you mentioned are running up to the gate. Sucks for them, but entertaining nonetheless.

    • Somebody has a bit of a cruel streak . . .

      • Cruel is after flying Paris to EWR, we couldn’t get a seat back to CLE. Like 6 hours later, and literally being pulled from a flight due to last minute revenue paxs that showed, we had to get a hotel about 40 minutes from the airport since everything closer was booked. We were beyond stir-crazy and looking for anything to pass the time. I think anyone can be cruel when nonreving 🙂

      • I maintain that travel privileges are a cruel hoax.

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