Archive for weather

Air Travel Delays: My Top 3 Cause Factors

Posted in air traveler, airline, airline cartoon, airline cartoon book, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, passenger, passenger bill of rights, pilot, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , on July 3, 2017 by Chris Manno

Look, I get it: I sit in both ends of the jet for some very long delays. My last two turnarounds were planned for 7 hours but turned into 8.5 and 9.1 respectively. That made my pilot duty day, with preflight and ground turnaround time, over 12 hours.

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Me deadheading in the very last row of coach, carefully not man-spreading and conceding the armrest to the middle seat passenger (basic air travel etiquette, BTW)

We waited over an hour for takeoff, then had additional holding in the air before landing at Philadelphia International Airport.

I’d deadheaded up to Philly to fly the jet back to DFW Airport but the result of the Air Traffic Control delays getting the jet off the ground in DFW and enroute to Philadelphia made our Philly-DFW flight well over an hour late into DFW.

That caused many passenger misconnects once we arrived at DFW after yet another round of airborne holding for nearly an hour. My flight plan from Philadelphia to DFW called for a flight time of 3:27 but with holding, the actual flight time became 4:30.

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That’s due to storms moving through the north Texas area faster and more southerly than predicted, constricting air traffic routes into DFW. So, we were delayed by ATC for an hour holding over a fix southeast of the airport after an enroute course refile to avoid weather.

I ain’t complaining, but I got home at 2am instead of 11pm. That’s my job and I did it correctly and safely for all 167 folks on board.

But that’s not the big picture. What’s driving ever-increasing air travel delays? Here’s my Top 3 Factors.

  1. Increased traffic volume. According to the DOT Bureau of Aircraft Statistics, airline departures have increased 5-7% annually since 2010. That means more aircraft crammed into exactly the same airspace, which means traffic flow abatement is ever-more necessary and unfortunately, more present: ground stops abound; inflight holding is often unavoidable even after enduring a ground stop.
  2. Weather predictive delays: the National Weather Service provides more and better predictive weather products that the FAA Air Traffic Control Center (ARTC) attempts to integrate into their traffic management constraints. In theory, this is a good thing but in practice, I question the effectiveness: air traffic is often preemptively ground-stopped or re-routed based on weather predictions, which aren’t always accurate (see above), meanwhile, air traffic then must be re-routed from the ARTC re-routes.
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The storms often do not conform to the FAA predicted movement, causing yet another layer of reroutes and delays.

3. Airline “banking” (the grouping of inbound-outbound flight exchanges at hub airports) cannot handle the disruption of hours-long delays: when one complex or “bank” of flights is delayed outbound, there’s nowhere to park and deplane the next complex. This leads to individual airline-imposed ground stops: your flight will not be pushed off from your origin airport gate until there’s a reasonable expectation of gate availability at your arrival hub. This is to avoid the old “sitting on a tarmac with toilets overflowing waiting for a gate” urban legends that engendered the Passenger Bill of Rights.

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Given the ubiquitous eye of cellphone video and social media, passengers can count on more origin airport outbound delays: major carriers will always defer to the Passenger Bill of Rights, allowing you to deplane at will at the departure station rather than sit on board at your destination, trapped for hours waiting for a gate at a weather-affected hub while ranting on social media.

There are other factors creating and lengthening delays, like an industry-wide shortage of qualified airline pilots and airline planners who over-optimistically schedule aircraft, crews and connections.

But from a pilot viewpoint, the big three above seem to be what I most frequently encounter. So, in addition to packing your own food and water in your carry-ons, be sure to arrive at your departure airport with a plentiful supply of patience. This summer, you’ll need it it more than ever.

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The REAL Captain’s Guide: How To Fly That Crap Weather Approach.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, fear of flying, flight crew with tags , , , , , , on September 30, 2016 by Chris Manno

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First, let’s define “real” captain. I don’t mean “real” in the sense of physical, tangible, bad-layover-clothes, mouth-breathing captain, although I’ve been one at a major airline for 25 years and counting. You’re “real” as a captain on Day One when you’re turned loose with the rating.

What I mean by “real” is as in, “get real.” That’s because we know there are several things you face as captain with the dogshit weather approach. First, there’s what you’re told. Second, there’s what you know. Finally, there’s where the reality plays out: from the final approach fix inbound at 180 knots across the ground. There’s stuff you need to do to be ready for that.

The first item, “what you’re told,” includes the OpSpec that allows you to do what you’re about to do: fly a big jet with a lot of folks–including your crew–into minimally adequate weather for landing. OpSpec includes a minimalist element (what’s the least we can send you into the most challenging weather?) that allows airlines to earn revenue for what you’re about to do.

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What you’re told also includes the prevailing weather at the time they told you, which is nowhere near the time at which you’ll actually fly the approach. If I sound like a captain who’s had that detail bite him in the ass–it’s because I am.

So, here’s the BTDT viewpoint that goes beyond the classroom and the manuals. Not interested in stuff beyond the books? Don’t need the BTDT captain viewpoint? Please close this blog page now. No harm, no foul. Best of luck.

Okay, still here? The others gone? Good.

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First, your approach starts in the chocks before pushback. No, I don’t mean “be the dork who starts stressing or worse, briefs the approach before engine start.” Rather, I mean be the captain the FO can rely on as soon as you sit down. Stay the hell out of his way as he (or she)  works. Respect–but check–the setup of the cockpit for takeoff. You ain’t perfect, so don’t expect your FO to be, and let him (or her) know YOU can be counted on as a team member to be sure you both do well from the first checklist. That’s what you want later: a collaborative, respectful environment where your FO knows you’re relying on each other step by step. The FO needs to be looking for and free to point out your screwups.

Second, “what you’re told” versus what you know can be tricky. Weather forecast versus delays you’ve seen versus altitude restrictions and the list goes on: variables, unreliables, despite “what you’ve been told.” But what everyone knows is this: fuel equals time. When that sixth sense picks at the back of your brain saying we might could use more fuel–you really do so get it before release. If you’re wrong (trust me, you won’t be–the only time you can have too much fuel is when you’re on fire) then you land with more time options. But if you’re at minimum fuel you’ll have to tear the seat cushion out of your ass after landing because your butt cheeks ate it up like horse’s lips do while you stressed about weather delays.

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Finally, downwind. If you’re flying, relax: you’re not that asshole captain showing how it’s done (okay, you really are) but rather, you’re doing what you know to your core you’re damn good at. So, be humble, be quiet, be methodical, procedurally correct and do exactly what’s called for. Show your FO how you want the approach flown.

FO flying? Even better: relax, back up everything done, think ahead of the jet and while you do, let the FO do the flying exactly as it’s supposed to be done. Getting slightly off track? Guide back to best practices with suggestions, positive affirmations and last resort–LAST RESORT–directive, which sounds like “Let’s go ahead and ____” or “I’m not comfortable with ____.”

Remember, if what you’re told hours ago before takeoff matches what you encounter at the final approach fix, that’s a coincidence. You fly “real” based on what you know, which includes every experience and subsequent intuition derived therefrom–apologize to no one, get the fuel you need and decide for yourself if OpSpec minimums are adequate to meet the challenge facing you in realtime. We don’t fly on paper, on a spreadsheet, or on a chart of minimums page. Remember the horse’s lips/seat cushion metaphors: get fuel, think ahead, respect your FO, believe what you know (school of hard knocks) and fly smart, conservative and REAL.

Then, from Final Approach Fix to touchdown or go-around, you’re smart, confident, safe, and real. No one can ask you for more and as captain, you cannot do anything less, nor accept anything but the best you can do, by leading, coaching and most of all, being real.

Fly safe, compadres.

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Airliners in Weather: What the Hail?

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, aviation weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2015 by Chris Manno

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Recently, a Boeing 787 and an Airbus 320 made headlines with dramatic photos of hail damage to the radomes and leading edges of the airfoils. That type of news story prompts the question from friends, family and passengers, “Can’t pilots see hail coming?”

My answer is threefold: yes, no, and it’s not that simple. Let’s take each part in order.

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On a normal flight, the above outside view would be depicted like this on a cockpit nav display:

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The magenta line is our filed flight path–where Air Traffic Control (ATC) expects us to be. To simplify for the sake of brevity, green areas are precipitation, red, convection, meaning uplifting air.

So yes, we can often see it coming because we know that convection can heave massive amounts of moisture upward with great force, into altitudes where the temperature could easily be -35C or less. This flash-freezes the moisture into ice pellets, with the size determined by variables of speed and temperature. I’ve felt and heard the sizzling sound of such particles impinging on my aircraft at over 40,000 feet–they’re fairly tiny and mostly innocuous at high altitude–not so in the lower, denser air.

Regardless, here’s where the “no” of my tripartite answer comes in. Like the ill-advised New Year’s Eve tradition some gun owners have of celebratory fire, what goes straight up comes back down–but the question is, where?

An enormous volume of hail spewed from the top of a thunderhead will get caught up in the winds aloft and they vary from near zero to over 100 mph. It’s not unusual for wind to blow a hail storm ten or more miles from the core of the thunderhead that lifted the moisture in the first place.

At night, the lightning may be obvious, but storm contours are not.

At night, the lightning may be obvious, but storm contours are not.

Can an you see that on radar? Maybe. Normally, you have the radar looking ahead, not up. What was a clear path, suddenly may be filled with hail, even miles away from the original source.

Which brings me to “it’s not that simple.” Both of the recent hail damage incidents occurred at low altitude, and by that I mean below 20,000 feet, which is a complicated area: jetliners don’t cruise that low, so the airspace is filled with a conflicting mix of climbing and descending aircraft. ATC does a fantastic job of sorting the mix crammed into often constrained airspace. But the problem is, that doesn’t leave much room for deviating around weather.

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In fact, with so many aircraft being managed on a particular frequency, it’s extremely difficult to even get a course change request to ATC. Add to that a ground speed often between 200 and 300 miles per hour and you have a dilemma: yes, you can see some weather threats, no, you can’t see all of them and avoiding weather and other jets in crowded airspace is simply put, not easy. Things change rapidly, virtually by the minute, and we’ll cover many miles in that time.

I can’t stress enough how versatile and responsive ATC is in managing tight airspace filled with dissimilar aircraft on assorted routes and changing altitudes. But as the mix becomes more dense, this high-speed Rubik’s becomes an outlandishly devilish puzzle.

In the cockpit, know that we’re using every means at our disposal to detect and track weather. We gauge the wind effect out of the top of a storm, we plot a course upwind of effects, we pass along what we’ve found to ATC and other aircraft.  Count on the reality that everyone on the ground and in the air is doing everything possible to avoid or, in the worst case, escape from bad weather.

Even the fact that only two aircraft out of the thousands in flight that day made the news with hail damage is good news in itself: pilots and ATC are pretty good at handling weather. Still, there’s only so much room and little leeway to detect and avoid hail.

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That’s the real news, and the good news far outweighs the bad: flying to Philly yesterday, I can’t compliment both ATC and the dozens of other pilots in the air for sharing information about clear passages, turbulence and new routings. I don’t know how Center and Approach do it, but the responsiveness and quick reaction is amazing.

I’m especially grateful that my airline has made installation of cutting edge radar technology in my cockpit a priority: yes, it’s expensive, but they want me to have the best, most current weather picture as I approach a front with you on board.

Our newest radar–which I’m glad to have available–displays three dimensions, is linked to our nav system so it always knows exactly where it is and thus screens out ground clutter and geographic features, and displays a predictive movement of hazards. It’s always on, scanning for potential problems and will pop up on cockpit displays if it detects something even if we’ve selected another depiction.

So there you have it. Yes, no, and it’s complicated–those are my answers to the question, “Can’t you see hail from the cockpit?” The big-picture view is that we’re all working together to stay out of the headlines. I’ll be flying to LaGuardia and back tomorrow and the fact that you WON’T read about my flight underscores everything I’ve just said.

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Air Travel, De-Icing and Delays: The Real Deal.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline delays, airline industry, airline passenger, airline pilot, airline pilot blog, airline safety, airliner, airliner take off with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2015 by Chris Manno

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Network news media love a screaming headline, even if they have to fudge the facts to suit the rhetoric. But here is the reality behind the wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding recent ice-related delays at major airports: the airlines did a damn good job given the challenges heaped on them in this storm.

As a captain, I flew a 737 trip in the middle of the week in the slush and snow out of DFW. Here is your chance to bypass the media frenzy (NBC News carefully crafted “9 hour delay for passengers”–quietly admitting later that it wasn’t on-board) and watch the flight evolve despite the weather interference.

At 06:10, a phone call from crew schedule woke me up. I had volunteered to fly a trip that day and they offered one, a turn to John Wayne Orange County (SNA) scheduled to depart at 10:10. I agreed to fly the trip.

Normally, it takes me 35 minutes to drive to DFW. I left my house at 6:45 to allow extra time for the slush and snow snarling the highways.

I arrived at DFW an hour later, an hour and twenty minutes early. The jet was parked at the gate, had been all night in the freezing precip, so I went aboard and started powering up systems. A quick check of the wings and fuselage confirmed what I assumed driving in: we’ll need a good de-icing on the wings, control surfaces and fuselage.

Let’s get more specific about aircraft icing. First, we need to remove the accumulated ice. Second, we need to prevent more ice from re-forming on aircraft surfaces. De-icing can be accomplished by a number of different fluids under pressure. “Anti-icing” is provided by a different, specifically designed fluid that chemically inhibits the adherence of ice on aircraft surfaces.

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In our case, the ceiling was low and visibility limited by ice fog, confirming the critical temperature-dew point spread that leads to condensation which of course would freeze on any cold surface. That means both de-ice and anti-ice will be required.

Anti-ice fluid effectiveness varies with temperature, and rate and type of precipitation. The duration of anti-ice protection declines as various forms of moisture increase. So, gauging the time–called “holdover time”–is a call that must be made by the flight crew based on observation of conditions actually occurring.

You can tell when anti-ice fluid has been applied to a jet because it will be colored either brick red-ish or lime green. The intensity of the color cues the cockpit crew as to the fluids declining effectiveness–it fades as the fluid loses the ability to inhibit icing. We actually check visually that from inside the aircraft prior to takeoff.

A side note about the fluid color. Most airlines now use the green fluid because the red was difficult to distinguish from hydraulic fluid as it dripped from crevices and bays on the aircraft, sometimes several flights downline from the original de-icing treatment. I learned long ago how to differentiate the two: propylene glycol, the main ingredient in anti-icing fluid, smells and tastes sweet. Skydrol hydraulic fluid is bitter. Yes, I’ve tasted both in the thirty years (and counting) I’ve been flying jets and laugh if you want, but it saves all aboard a needless and probably lengthy maintenance delay.

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Another unseen complication that adds to the icing mix is jet fuel. The worst case is with fuel remaining in wing tanks after a flight at high altitude. The fuel in the tanks become super cold due to the temperature at altitude (often -50C or less) and as a result, the wing surfaces both upper and lower are super-chilled, causing any moisture in the air to freeze on contact. Explain that to the guy sitting next to you griping as we de-ice on a sunny, clear day: humidity plus ice-cold metal surfaces can add up to wing icing that must be removed: we can tolerate no more than 1/8″ of mere frost on the underside of the wing only. Any other airfoil contamination must be removed before flight.

Clear ice on wings is not easy to see from the cabin, particularly the area near the wing root, which is critical on aircraft with tail mounted engines like the MD-80 and -717, because upon wing flex as rotation and liftoff occur, any wing root ice that breaks loose into the slipstream could easily fly back along the fuselage to be ingested by either or both engines, with potentially disastrous results.

So why don’t aircraft have heated wing surfaces? Actually, most MD-80 upper wing surfaces do have an electrically heated thermal blanket on top of the inboard-most portion of the wing surface. But, not the curved wing root joint which is not visible from the cabin. So, you’ll notice a lot of MD-80 aircraft having to de-ice in even the slightest icing conditions.

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In our case, I knew the fuel pumped aboard for our flight would have the opposite effect. At DFW, the fuel is stored underground and pumped aboard from a hydrant, not a truck. The effect would be to warm, not freeze the wing surfaces. That would help with de-icing, but we’d still require a thorough dose of Type-2 de-icing fluid to clean ice off the jet.

By 9:10, the official crew check-in time, there was no sign of a first officer. I started the process of printing a flight release and agreeing on a fuel burn, as well as the complex process of determining takeoff speeds, made more complicated due to the presence of slush and snow on the runway. Any type of contamination, from pooled water to slush to ice can impede both acceleration and deceleration. Both maximums (takeoff and stopping) must be accurately calculated and while there is a published “runway condition,” the actual calculations are very much a realtime, eyeballs-verified assessment: I’ve broken through an undercast during an ice storm as we approached DFW only to find that just the first two-thirds of the runway had been cleared–a fact not noted on the official field report. That lopped off about four thousand feet of useable braking surface.

At 9:30, forty minutes prior to pushback, still no sign of a first officer. The roads are awful, as is the traffic, so I’m not surprised and I’m glad I left home as early as I did. I called Crew Tracking, catching them by surprise as well: in this winter storm, there were plenty of stuck, stranded or missing crewmembers. They hadn’t noticed.

I resigned myself to going out into the sleet to do the exterior inspection myself, planning to have all preflight duties complete in case the first officer should show up at the last minute. Here’s an up close look at the leading edge icing:

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and the ice on the wing trailing edge:

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Engine covers were installed, a very smart preventative measure to prevent icing, but which would require maintenance removal and documentation. I radioed maintenance to get in the cue for this required maintenance and fortunately, American Airlines had well-staffed maintenance for this shift. But again, they too had technicians who, like my F/O, were stuck in the ice storm snarled traffic, slowing things down.

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With the exterior preflight complete, I requested the upload of navigation and performance data as well as our clearances. And I took a minute to call the Crew Scheduling Manager on Duty to suggest that they grab the deadheading 737 first officer sitting in row 20 and reassign him to fly the trip. He said if the duty legality limits worked, that’s what he’d do.

By 10:00, the conscripted first officer was in the right seat, having agreed to the reassignment: he’d fly the leg to the west coast, his home base, and rather than going home, he’d also fly the leg back to DFW and only then deadhead home, if possible. Just one more crewmember going the extra mile to make the flight operation work.

We pushed back nearly on time (10:21 vs. 10:10) , but the ramp was congested with ice and slush, slowing everyone down even further. The precip had stopped, the ceiling had lifted to a thousand feet and the temperature-dew point spread had widened, all of which meant less chance of ice formation. Our holdover time would expand, allowing us to de-ice on the ramp rather than at the end of the runway. Essentially, that made for a shorter wait for all aircraft: if there is freezing precip, or any precip in freezing temps, all de-icing would have to be done at the end of the runway, meaning long takeoff delays.

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Taxiing a seventy-five ton tricycle on ice and slush is tricky, requiring slower speeds and a critical energy management: too slow and you’ll have to add excessive power to restart movement, slinging ice and slush at other aircraft. But you also need almost zero forward inertia to maintain nose gear traction in any turn, aided by asymmetric braking on the main gear into the turn. It’s a dicey operation that takes extra time.

We kept the flaps retracted on taxi-out so as to not accumulate any slush or freezing water on the underside of the flaps, a potential problem during flap retraction. Our miles-long taxi from the east side terminal to the west side runway gave us plenty of time to assess the surface conditions and fine-tune our power and speed plans.

We finally lifted off nearly fifty minutes after taxi-out. Through route shortcuts and favorable winds, we made up some of the lost time, arriving twenty-eight minutes behind schedule.

I believe my flight was more typical of all flights during an unrelenting ice storm, but mine isn’t the one craftily worded into a horror story by the media. Regardless, the fact is that icing makes flight operations complex, difficult and challenging. Yet more flight operated in the same way mine did–slow, careful, successful–than the media version of a few unfortunate cases. I take it as a compliment that the reality of these winter flights was a success story leaving the media very few flights to turn into their typically overblown horror stories.

By the time I got home nearly fourteen hours after voluntarily accepting the challenging flight assignment, the network news was already sensationalizing the “impossible” travel situation created by SnoMIGOD 2015 which dumped an unprecedented amount of snow and ice on DFW and Dallas Love Field. At least I knew the facts were not as they’d have us believe–and now you do too.

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Flight Crew: Some Things You Just Don’t Get Over.

Posted in air travel, airline, airline industry, airline pilot, flight attendant, flight crew, pilot with tags , , , , , , , on November 14, 2014 by Chris Manno

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Sidelong cross-cockpit glance: yep, it’s a flat top, ex-USMC style, and the bushy but gone gray Magnum PI mustache suggests a time warp. Better times? Easier times? He laughs a lot for a guy on the razor’s edge of disaster. I say nothing.

Ahead cumulus knots itself into towering stacks, each with a cirrus blow-off pointing like a banner to where the fleet’s headed. Same place we are, or so the anvils point. I’m thinking an upwind end run around the billowing, full-sail armada. He’s talking about our Chicago layover tonight.

His wife, a flight attendant, met us at our connecting gate as she passed through the airport. Something in her eyes matched the foreboding that weighed heavy as the tide on my mind. Pleading? Hurt? Wary? I couldn’t tell–yet I know what I know: My Darling Bride, also a flight attendant, flew with her yesterday. And I knew his wife–flew with her many times–before they were married. Then she was bright in the sense of Christmas lights, tiny scattered points of happiness gleaming everywhere. Not any more.

“Takes two to tango,” his words tumble in a snippet from what is more of a forced chatter, or so it seems. I guess if you’re talking you never have to listen. But in the tango of time and fuel, in the dance altitude and storm clearance, may I cut in?

 

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“I’d say left,” my mouth says. It’s his flight leg, but my jet. He’s flying the plane, but I signed for the damages. Upwind is longer, but smoother, safer. The shorter way is too uncertain, could put someone through the ceiling.

“We can top it,” he suggests, sweeping a hand out flat, as if showing a planar space between our altitude and the boiling cumulus rising ahead. Ah, there’s a thought. Climb another two thousand feet to max habitable altitude for the weight–which puts you into the coffin corner where the difference between high-speed buffet and low speed stall is a handful of capricious knots. If there’s any turbulence, those knots stop the tango and freestyle. Good luck.

His wife had mechanically recited to mine the all-too-familiar litany. “We just bought our ‘captain’s house’ … he wants me to quit flying … he can hold captain in Chicago … get a crash pad there …” In the jumpseat confessional, all is forgiven, but there will be penance nonetheless. Ahead, lightning licked the bruised-blue cloud bases, promising a fresh evening hell for Kansas and eventually, Illinois.

“Let’s take it over the top, direct,” he says with finality. “Stay on time.” Unsaid, but mentioned earlier: “she gets in an hour ahead of us.” Gentleman that he is, he doesn’t want her waiting. She flies for a different airline, but even after working her way over to our terminal, she’ll still have time to kill.

The thing about fiery cumulus and boiling sky is this: you really don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Never mind about the paper algorithm of options and assets, timing, clearance and margins, in real life, you just never know.

I key the hand mike. “Center, we need twenty left for weather.”

He slumped a little. Peeved? The perfect plan set back a few minutes? Can’t tell. Doesn’t matter. We swung wide upwind.

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I glance at the cloud tops, anvils aglow with the molten sunset. Some storms seem to fade, to lose their fire when the heat of the sun goes away. But this towering mess seemed the type that would thunder ahead regardless.

“Some things,” I say, “Some things you just can’t get over.”

Deaf ears. He was already hundreds of miles ahead, prattling on about Geno’s and where they’d watch the mind-numbing circularity of NASCAR (“She gets it–and me!”) inside The Loop.

Shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry, too far down the road, I thought to myself. Some things you just never get over, and really, you probably shouldn’t try.

 More? Read on. cvr w white borderThese 25 short essays in the best tradition of JetHead put YOU in the cockpit and at the controls of the jet.

Some you’ve read here, many have yet to appear and the last essay, unpublished and several years in the writing,  I consider to be my best writing effort yet.

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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:

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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

Un-Pilotish: Just Say No.

Posted in airline, airline cartoon, airline pilot blog, airliner, flight, flight crew, jet with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 4, 2013 by Chris Manno

STAR TW

Top of descent with a hundred knots of tailwind. You’ve been asking for a descent for the last forty miles with no success, and you know why: outbounds are climbing below you and worse, they’re staying low nose to nose because of what’s been a tailwind for you since the west coast–but which would be a headwind for them westbound.

So it’s the double-whammy: high, and hot; closing on the altitude crossing restrictions are cramping the descent algorithm–there’s not enough “forward” left to to execute a civilized “down.”

410med

“Cross Fever at 11,000 and 250 knots,” comes the ATC instructions, and I immediately think of a captain I used to fly with in the 1980s who would have, without hesitation, answered, “We can do it–but we’ll have to leave the airplane behind.” Instead, I just say, “Unable.”

I know, I know: we probably could make the crossing restriction, but why play the odds? And if you’ve flown long enough, you know the odds are about 90% that this ain’t the end of the story: the Dreaded Hypotenuse. That is:

STAR TW direct

You’re going to get cleared direct to another point, shaving off the miles of “forward” you were counting on to execute the “down” at a civilized rate–with the same crossing restriction. Last month up in New York Center I heard a commuter pilot on frequency asking for relief on a crossing restriction he had innocently enough accepted fifty miles back: “Can we get relief on that crossing restriction?”

Without missing a beat, NY Center replied, “Absolutely not.” Now who wishes they were a heretic–or wants to leave the airplane behind?

unable 3

And there’s the problem: “unable” is, well, un-pilotish. Which is actually not a bad thing to strive for. Here’s what I’m thinking: for some reason, the “cultural” aspect of being a pilot has insidiously taken on a life of its own: we can do anything, best any challenge, defy gravity, wear ridiculously big watches

–which is a latent “Flavor Flav” urge driving many pilots, which I’ve never understood–and sometimes we forget in the “never say no”  to a challenge mindset that one person we should more often say no to is ourselves. Still with me? Let’s have a new captain flashback.

MFE 31

Fog creeping up the Rio Grande Valley like a ghost; moonless night dark as space. Tons of gas, literally, and paper calculations that equal one good approach to minimums, then divert to San Antonio. Tidy plan. Works well on paper.

Unable? My ass: can do!

OAT 1

After the first missed approach (wow, the ceiling really is below the minimum descent altitude) the new captain consults the F-100’s “Progress–Fuel Predict” readout, which shows enough endurance for a second approach–then a divert to San Antonio.

Today’s captain voice-in-the-head, some 20 years more experienced, says, “Tell yourself no, stupid!” Divert now. For the record–then and now–I’ve never had a big pilot watch, or aviator sunglasses, or a creepy mustache, or any of the other silliness that seems to be part of the pilot stereotype. But I did have that “never back down from a challenge” mentality that I guess lands you in the cockpit in the first place.

fuel mc

“We’re requesting one more ILS, with clearance on request to San Antonio on the missed approach,” the intrepid First Officer relayed to the Approach Controller. Fine, thought the new captain; we can do this.

Second approach, same result: pea soup. On the second missed approach, Departure control sends us to Enroute: “State your request.”

We’d like to go direct San Antonio at 14,000′. San Antonio is now 1/8th mile visibility in fog.  You planning to hold?

Actually, planning to just say no–first to myself, then anyone else offering an uncertain gamble, challenge or no, in flight from now on. How unpilotish–and yet, common-sensical.

We raced the sinking temperature-dewpoint spread blanketing the state south to north with fog and landed in Austin with less fuel than I’d ever seen on the gages before–although my base Chief Pilot, over a couple of beers, told me he’d actually landed with less. He’s a “say no” guy now, too.

And that’s the whole deal: say “no” early–and often. Let Air Traffic Control manage their own airspace congestion without expecting an airshow on your part. Talk yourself out of any bad bets before anyone can even suggest you play the odds.

And above all–avoid the pilot stereotype.  It really doesn’t fly well, despite the mythology.

ramp d

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