Airborne Holding Pattern–Why Isn’t The Pilot Talking To Us?


img_6601.jpg

I get it: flight delays are frustrating for passengers. A hundred sixty-some people want information, they want time estimates. They have connections to make, events scheduled–and for whatever reason, the flight is late.

Two scenarios determine what I can do. On the ground? Easy: brakes parked, we wait. I give updates at least every 30 minutes on the ground, usually more often. We’re not moving, we’re not burning fuel–I have plenty of time and attention to give passengers. Here’s me in that situation:

IMG_6656

Sitting, waiting patiently, giving timely explanations over the PA. But in the air, it’s a different story. We’re burning fuel, which is literally eating away at the time we can stay aloft. We’re in a flow of traffic, meaning we have jets both ahead and behind us on our route and we have speed and altitude constraints: can’t speed up because we’ll close on the aircraft ahead of us (“Can we make up time in the air?” Probably not, and that’s why). We have ever-changing weather both along our route and at our destination and our alternates. When we’re sent to a holding pattern, here’s me:

IMG_6674

I’m conducting a multi-piece orchestra that includes Air Traffic Control, flight dispatch, and our jet to include route, fuel burn, alternates, alternate weather, enroute weather, holding pattern both position and altitude (as we go lower, the fuel burn increases and thus our range and endurance decreases), and the aircraft ahead of and behind us in holding, which is in reality above and below us.

Now is not a good time to tap the conductor on the shoulder and ask, “Are we there yet?”

I can’t say what other major carriers do, but on American Airlines flights, your cockpit crew has the latest greatest technology to provide real-time information and communication. The airline has always been a leader in advanced flight deck technology (first to have both comprehensive terrain warning and windshear predictive weather avoidance guidance) and in the last year, has added live-streamed WSI animated weather radar to the cockpit assets:

IMG_6625

Virtually at my fingertips is the combined radar, turbulence warnings, severe weather depictions, storm tops, and direction of movement, in real-time, animated, thanks to dedicated flight deck WIFI. We already had one of the most advanced radars ever built on our aircraft, which gives details out as far as 300 miles (I find it most useful at 160 mile range), but now we can look two hours down our route, see what’s developing and if prudent, request a different route clearance to keep the ride smooth and efficient.

IMG_6054

In the terminal area, on board radar does an excellent job of tuning itself and, because it has GPS positioning, it screens out terrain features that might appear as false weather echoes.

Once assigned holding, our cockpit workload includes the pattern itself (we always ask for longer legs to limit turns that burn gas and aren’t as comfortable for passengers. We’re given an Expected Further Clearance time (EFC on the display below):

IMG_6658

So we can begin the fuel calculations to determine how long we can hold before we must divert. Here’s a definition for you: Bingo Fuel is the minimum total fuel we can have before we must either proceed to our destination or divert. For example only, let’s say 5,000 pounds of fuel is what we want to be on the deck with.

To determine Bingo Fuel, we start with the total we must have on the ground at either our destination or our divert alternate. Add to that the amount of fuel it takes to get to your alternate, which is a different amount from that which would be burned if you diverted from the holding pattern rather than from an approach at your destination.

My airline has instantaneous navigation and fuel computations at our fingertips:

IMG_6657

Here is the fuel I’ll land with if I divert to Philadelphia, leaving holding now (the “D” after KPHL means “directly from holding”) which is 13.2 (13,200 pounds of fuel). Subtract 5.0 Bingo Fuel and that leaves 8,000 pounds available until we either have to land at our destination or alternate. Why is JFK arrival fuel less when it’s actually closer to our destination Newark? Because we’re holding well south of New York, so Philly is closer.

But there’s more to consider. What’s going on at Philly? Once again, our state-of-the-art cockpit resources have instant answers:

IMG_6663

A touch of the screen brings up current conditions at our destination and alternate. But there’s still another fuel consideration: how do I preserve Bingo Fuel after leaving holding and flying to the destination and completing the approach–then diverting? That number will be different depending on where you’re holding in relation to your destination, plus where your alternate is in relation to your destination. That’s signified by the “M” after the airfield, instantly calculated by our nav system:

IMG_6659

Of course, that number will be more restrictive because of the fuel burn required from our holding pattern location and our destination. The two figures (M and D) must be constantly monitored to be sure the M option is even possible, but there’s a catch: as you descend in the holding pattern, fuel burn will increase–and all of those fuel figures will change.

So, the conductor (captain) is sorting constantly changing data streams and at the same time, communicating with Air Traffic Control and Flight Dispatch but there’s a third stream that’s complex and must also be tacitly monitored: what are other jets doing? If those ahead of us get a further delay, we know we will too. If someone diverts, where are they going, because if too many go to that airport, there may be further holding.

What’s the ever-changing weather doing at our selected alternates and if needed (fairly typical), let’s set up numbers and weather for another divert alternate. Can we extend our holding based on the proximity of another suitable alternate?

IMG_6662

What approach are they using in real-time at both our destination and our alternate, and what is happening in real-time at our destination? If we can split our attention seven ways (Air Traffic Control, Dispatch, weather, fuel burn, destination and alternate weather), we can monitor the destination approach control frequency and see how long the final pattern (think: fuel burn) is so as to determine a more realistic enroute and approach burn to preserve the ironclad Bingo number.

Given all of that information coming in, communications going out, calculations being done and ever-changing, plus flying the 70 ton jet smartly, safely and efficiently–this is not a good time to tap the conductor on the shoulder and ask, “are we there yet?”

I’ll make a PA when we’re released from holding, or if we divert. But now that you are aware of what’s actually happening during a very routine airborne holding pattern, you can understand why I barely have time to drink my already cold airplane coffee, much less talk on the PA. We have the absolute best inflight equipment in the airline industry and the tightest, most consistent crew coordination in the world, so now is the time to let us work for you.

Rest assured that we’re doing everything humanly possible to get you safely to our destination.

IMG_6620

 

 

 

Advertisements

3 Responses to “Airborne Holding Pattern–Why Isn’t The Pilot Talking To Us?”

  1. Excellent information Chris! Well done! Thank you! Jock

  2. Randy Sohn Says:

    Boy-oh-boy, sure ‘splains it so well, much “mo-bettah” than I was ever able to do on the P.A. with all the things that you’ve just mentioned going on in my brain/head. Reminds me once again of something I can be quoted on – “Sure is nice to be retired”.

  3. Among your top 5 posts Captain; whatever it is, you folks don’t earn enough.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: