Ask the pilot

Anatomy of a delay: It's payback time as the pilot endures a 24-hour snowstorm saga.


Patrick Smith
March 23, 2007 3:00PM (UTC)

Last month, after a storm socked in Kennedy airport, marooning thousands of fliers on ice-encrusted jets, I spent two columns analyzing the nuts and bolts of weather delays. I emphasized the rarity of large-scale weather fiascoes, while pointing out potential downsides of the so-called passenger bill of rights now being championed by travelers' advocates and politicians. Readers were, let's just say, less than satisfied, calling me everything from an asshole to an airline apologist. I was accused of being aloof, out of touch, and snidely unsympathetic to the miseries faced by stranded passengers.

Admittedly, I was writing from the comfortable, if not exactly luxurious, confines of my apartment. And one of the things I chose not to mention -- first, because nobody would have believed me, and second, because I'd have been burned in effigy for saying it -- is that in all my years of commercial flying, whether as a passenger or a crew member, on a domestic or an international flight, I had never once experienced a delay lasting more than about three hours.

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I can't say for certain if I jinxed myself, or if perhaps one of my detractors put a hex on me. Whatever the case, it didn't take long for my number to come up. Two weeks to be exact. Consider yourself avenged.

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It's the morning of March 16, and a late winter storm is headed for the northeastern United States. Airports from Maryland to Maine are bracing for a wallop. At slightly past noon, I'm settling into the cockpit jump seat of a Boeing 757, for what is planned to be a two-hour and 20-minute trip to Boston's Logan International Airport. The flight is overbooked, so I'll be riding up front. Reports from home say the snow is just starting. If we leave on schedule, we should beat the worst of it.

So far so good: The jet pushes back only a minute or two late, and most of its 190 occupants -- 183 passengers, two pilots, four flight attendants and me -- are upbeat and grateful. Back inside the concourse, the departure screens are spattered with red cancellations for later in the day. Philadelphia, LaGuardia, Newark, Providence, Boston -- everything northbound has been scratched in advance. Ours will be one of the last flights out.

As the plane rolls backward and the first officer prepares to start engines, the captain is riffling through the dispatch release and flight plan. "I just don't understand it," he says, scrutinizing a long furl of dot-matrix printout. "Why do they want us to leave with only a half-hour of holding fuel?" This is the first premonition of trouble.

Per regulation, a domestic flight must carry at least enough fuel, based on computer-calculated burn estimates, to arrive at its destination, then proceed to the most distant of any required alternate airport, plus maintain a 45-minute cushion. Holding or contingency fuel, if any, is added above and beyond that total. Today, the paperwork shows our alternate as Bangor, Maine. (Alternate airports are chosen based on weather criteria -- ceilings and visibilities must remain above forecast minimums within a certain window of time.) Beyond what it takes to reach Boston or Bangor and our 45-minute cushion, we'll have only enough kerosene for a half-hour of circling before a diversion becomes mandatory. That might sound like plenty of slack, but Logan is notorious for arrival delays even in good weather.

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The captain is unsure why the dispatchers, who are responsible for most of the preflight planning and the en route oversight of all flights, have set things up this way. (Dispatchers, like pilots, are FAA-licensed and intimately familiar with both the arcana of fuel planning and the realities of day-to-day operations.) Surely they realize what's at stake. The plane is nowhere close to its maximum gross weight for the existing conditions; there's plenty of room for more gas. Generally, airlines are reluctant to lug around excess fuel because it costs more to do so. At times like this, however, the price of an unscheduled stop could easily outweigh the benefits of hauling a lighter load.

On the other hand, should an airport close for an extended length of time, it's sometimes better to head elsewhere and wait things out on the ground, rather than fly interminable circles overhead while the runways and taxiways are plowed. It's partly a judgment call and partly a roll of the dice.

The captain has the final say. Though somewhat perplexed, after consulting with the first officer he has opted to accept the numbers and depart. At this point, calling for supplemental fuel would keep us at the gate for several more minutes. With worsening conditions up north, it's better to press on as soon as possible. Judging from the forecasts and our ETA, delays should be brief.

Wishful thinking. Proceeding up the Eastern Seaboard, the crew is getting reports every few minutes. Conditions at BOS are steadily deteriorating. The bad news arrives two ways -- either over the radio, courtesy of air traffic control, or via an in-cockpit device called ACARS. The latter, also known as "datalink," is a touch-screen box and keyboard with an adjacent printer. It allows for real-time communications between the crew and its dispatchers. You can think of ACARS as a sort of air-to-ground instant messaging.

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And the messages it's bringing aren't well received. Snow is falling heavily now, mixed with sleet and gusty winds. Logan is down to a single runway for both arrivals and departures. Doubtless that means holding patterns and substantial delays. The first officer starts punching up data on the flight management computer, looking at fuel figures and distances to various airports around the region.

The real problems begin during descent, somewhere around Providence, R.I. Boston has shut down altogether, ATC tells us. Until Massport can clear and treat that lone open runway, along with several taxiways, we'll be assigned to a holding fix at 11,000 feet.

The first thing the captain does is request something higher than 11,000. The lower the circling height, the more fuel we'll burn. Request denied. There are 10 other aircraft in sequence. Eleven thousand it will be.

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Pirouetting over the Ocean State -- it's down there somewhere, hidden under a gunmetal blanket of stratus -- we're told to expect clearance in 30 minutes. That's right at our limit, and not one of us has the least bit of faith in this prediction. "Let's see about a different alternate," says the captain. "How about Windsor Locks? Or what about Portland?" Something closer than Bangor would free up fuel and allow some added circling time. The first officer nods and taps out an ACARS message.

Alas, thanks to falling visibilities across the region, there are very few choices. Bangor is still the best of them, with a good forecast, a huge runway, and prompt and courteous ground support (fuel orders in excess of 10,000 gallons come with a complimentary platter of lobster rolls and chowder). "Well, I guess we'll be heading to Bangor," shrugs the captain. "If it comes to that."

It does. Twenty-nine minutes into the half-hour hold, ATC comes back with a revised clearance, adding 40 more minutes to our delay. The response is a volley of cursing. Time to divert.

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Things get busy. There's a new clearance to request and receive, new routings and altitudes to program, and all concerned parties -- company, crew, passengers and the folks in Bangor -- need to be briefed on what's happening.

Just after 4 p.m. we touch down. We're 90 minutes past our scheduled landing time in Boston, and 250 miles to the north. Bangor's small terminal has a limited number of jetways, all of which are occupied, so we're parked remotely on the apron and serviced with a set of drive-up stairs.

The plan, assuming that Massport has finished plowing, is for a quick turn. We'll take on fuel and depart again for BOS as quickly as possible. (I'm trying to be optimistic, running the numbers in my head: If we leave within the hour, I can still make it home in plenty of time for "The McLaughlin Group.")

The captain has gone out back for a face-to-face with the customers, leaving the first officer alone with the following tasks: supervise refueling; coordinate logistics with the ground handlers; request a new flight plan; request and fact-check a new weight-and-balance manifest; prepare the logbook; contact ATC for the status at Boston; get a new clearance; set up the cockpit controls and computers. And just to be safe, he'll need to consult the brake energy charts to be sure we're legal for a short turnaround. Hot brakes are an issue in the event of a rejected takeoff.

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No rush, it turns out. We're soon informed that although Boston had reopened briefly (right around the time we were climbing away), it has closed again for snow removal. Another 60 minutes, they say, before any updates.

Once the passengers get word of this, several want off. A dozen or so live right here in central Maine. You'd think letting them off would be a straightforward procedure, but it's easier said than done. For one thing, we're a good 400 yards from the terminal, meaning that an escort is required. And it can't be a crew member; it needs to be a TSA-ordained, local airport employee. The airline has no staff here; we're using contract support that, for the time being, is very busy with other unscheduled arrivals, including a pair of Boston-bound 747s belonging to Lufthansa and Air France. Second, there will not be time to offload anybody's luggage.

The captain explains all of this, but the Mainers are still anxious to deplane. Eventually they are accommodated, though working this out takes the better part of an hour.

ACARS messages are pouring out of the printer now. Somewhere in that fat scroll of paper is word that our projected hourlong ground stop has been extended to 90 minutes. "Ah, shit."

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"Is catering available?" the captain wants to know. "Something for the people. Snacks or whatever."

"Sorry, sir," the radio crackles back." It's 6:30 p.m.

The pilots, at least, won't go hungry, because the flight attendants have sneaked two leftover first-class meals into the cockpit: "Don't let anybody see this!" As the trays are ushered in, the atmosphere of secrecy strikes me as unnecessary. Would fliers really begrudge their pilots, who haven't eaten since the hotel breakfast bar, the luxury of a sandwich? Out back, the people remain in reasonably good spirits, making the best of the remaining sodas, juice and chips. We hear occasional bursts of laughter.

Finally, at around 7 o'clock, we're informed that BOS is accepting traffic. "But," comes the caveat, "you can probably expect more holding en route."

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Fingers crossed, the plane is quickly buttoned up. The captain fastens his seat belt, placing his half-eaten meal onto the floor. "See if you can't sneak that back into the galley," he asks me. Within 15 minutes everybody is seated and the doors are ready to be closed. The final paperwork is delivered, and a marshaller stands anxiously in front of the nose with his Day-Glo wands.

But then something unusual happens. Looking over the manifest and reams of ACARS messages, the first officer is suddenly reminded that there's a dog in one of the cargo compartments. Somebody is shipping it up from Florida, unaccompanied. "Damn, that's right. Shouldn't we see if he's OK?"

Everybody nods. The underfloor holds are heated, either by the engines or the auxiliary power unit, which has been running since we landed, and the dog should be fine. Then again, it's been a very long afternoon, and you never know. It takes three men and a truck -- busy with Air France until they get the call -- to open the cargo door and check on the lonely animal.

With that taken care of, and after lots of huffing and sighing, it's time again for the checklists and departure. Except, again at the very last second, there's a problem. The captain notices a page is missing from the revised weight and balance record. Not just any page, but an important and mandatory one. Time for a radio call, and a 10-minute wait until a fax can be sent with the correct information. To retrieve the omitted sheet, a pickup truck must drive from the aircraft to the ops room a quarter-mile away, then back again to the plane.

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Then, at last, onward and upward we go into the cold Maine twilight. As the gear trundles into the wells, the clock hits 7:45. We are five hours late and counting.

At around 8:15 p.m., on the arrival into Logan, take a guess what happens? That's correct, BOS again closes for plowing. Sixty more minutes is the expected wait. We have roughly 90 minutes of holding fuel, and again the crew starts looking into options for a second diversion. This time, should it happen, up against duty-time restrictions, they'll be calling it a night and the rest of us will need hotels. Bangor isn't manned to handle 200 refugees, so it'll have to be somewhere different.

Dispatch suggests Cleveland. "Bullshit," says the captain. "No way are we taking these people all the way to Cleveland. They could have rented cars in Bangor and driven home by now." (A fine idea, in hindsight.) Eventually, it's agreed that Washington, several hundred miles to the south, will be the alternate of choice.

At 9:15 p.m., the runway at Logan is reported plowed, sanded, chemically treated, and ready for operation. That would seem an auspicious sign, but here comes the kicker: "Stand by," says air traffic control, "for a braking action report." There are clenched teeth all around, because the precipitation has changed from snow to a slippery mixture of sleet and freezing rain. Few things are more hostile to airplanes than freezing rain.

"They're showing 19 right now on the meter."

"Nineteen?" The captain takes out a chart, then punches up ACARS to verify. Yup, it's 19. I'll spare you the technical explanation, but that's a bad, bad number -- below the legal limit even for the 757's sophisticated auto-brake and anti-skid system.

Massport's snow-removal team is called back to action. They're dreaming about that double-overtime check, while ATC comes back with a new clearance time. Naturally, it's another hour hence.

"Um, that just isn't gonna work, sir," responds the first officer with an audible groan. "If that time is going to stand, we'll need to go somewhere else. Again."

"I expect it to stand, yes. You're No. 6 for the airport, and I can't imagine things will be ready before then."

And with that, we're on the way to Washington-Dulles airport in Virginia. During the climb, I'm tantalized by the lights of Boston below, smoldering through the clouds. I imagine the sensation of parachuting into the murk, gliding in over Davis Square and onto my front porch.

After level-off, the pilots flip a coin to determine who'll make the P.A. announcement I cower slightly, lest they get any bright ideas that maybe the freeloader ought to be the one. The captain calls tails, and loses.

If we're lucky, we'll be at the gate in Dulles around 11 o'clock. I unstrap my shoulder harness and reach for my backpack. Exhausting and tedious as they are, situations like this one were probably more unbearable in decades past -- before the invention of the portable music player. I once had a playlist geared to phases of flight. There were songs for takeoff, songs for turbulence, songs for crossing the ocean. Delay music is tricky -- nothing too peppy or cheerful. The Mountain Goats' "Tallahassee" is a good choice. For holding patterns, I've always favored a cut called "Sputnik," from the little-known U.K. outfit Sumosonic (a Jazz Butcher spinoff)...

"And the ladies in Los Angeles,
and the gentlemen in Perth,
See them up there...
Circling the earth."

But tonight, eight full hours into a rare double diversion, it's only apropos to play the longest songs possible. Headed southbound over Connecticut, our soundtrack begins with the Wedding Present and "Take Me I'm Yours," followed by the entire 13 minute (and 47 seconds) opera of Hüsker Dü's "Reocurring Dreams." From there, we downshift into the Velvet Underground. There's a grinding drone to "Sister Ray" that is all too appropriate, segueing into the mellow and beautiful "Oh! Sweet Nothin'." That gets the blood pressure down, in preparation for the chaos awaiting us at Dulles.

There's little talking for the duration. Between songs, I catch some of the radio chatter. The voices are edgy and frustrated, the conversations clipped. Everybody is late.

By 11:15 we're descending through 10,000 feet. There's snow on the ground and blustery winds. Dulles is a minor station with only a few employees. The passengers will face long waits for hotel arrangements. "Working on it," says ACARS. There will be no offloading of cargo. The plane will dock, spend the night, and depart again for Boston at some point the following day, depending on crew-rest requirements and airport staffing. We're not the only unscheduled arrival, and they'll be bringing in workers from Reagan-National, provided they too aren't swamped.

The 757 jump seat is mounted high against the aft bulkhead. The view is sharply downward, putting the windscreen at knee level. Coming over the runway approach lights, the perspective gives you the strange sensation of falling vertically toward the pavement.

We're down, and now the next set of hassles begins.

As the passengers head off to claim vouchers in the main terminal, the pilots and flight attendants spend the next hour sitting in the departure lounge, cellphones in hand, trying to reach their schedulers in order to determine what hotels they'll be going to. With operations in disarray, the lines are tied up.

They finally get their digs -- half are going to the Marriott, half to a Hyatt -- and will return in the morning for an expected 11 o'clock takeoff to Boston. As for me, I'm neither a revenue passenger nor working crew, so I'm on my own for finding a room. Almost everywhere is full, but I track down a vacancy at the Embassy Suites, some 20 miles away. The cab fare alone will cost me $90 for the round trip, and the line at the taxi stand is more than 50 people deep.

At around 2 a.m. as I'm lying in bed, something hits me. The dog! They forgot about the dog. Back at Dulles, somebody's poor pet is stuck in the cargo compartment of a very unheated 757, and it's going to remain there until morning at the earliest. Hopefully it's a Siberian husky or some kind of shepherd, I think to myself before drifting off to sleep.

At breakfast, the hotel restaurant is packed. Eavesdropping on the conversations around me, I gather that almost everybody in the place is a stranded traveler.

Back at Dulles, the departure monitors mention nothing about Boston. Because our flight is, using industry jargon, an "extra section," nobody has thought to post it. People are milling around, trying to remember which gate they'd arrived at.

And because none of the extra staff from National were able to make it, boarding isn't completed until nearly noontime. A lone agent is handling three separate departures.

Next, with everybody seated, doors closed, and the pilots cleared for pushback, there's a headset problem. During push and start, pilots coordinate with the marshallers and the tug driver through an intercom. The marshaller's headset, connected into a jack near the forward landing gear, isn't working. So he disconnects it, then slowly -- very, very slowly -- ambles into the ops room to scrounge up a new one. An eternity later he slowly -- very, very slowly -- ambles back and plugs in. "OK, Captain, I hear you now. Copy that, brakes are released, cleared to push, tail north..."

Almost nothing can stop us now. We're on our way; the weather has cleared; the dog was discovered unharmed. But needless to say, things aren't complete without a final snafu.

We start the left engine and taxi out. Nearing the departure end of the runway, it's time to start the other one. All is well until the first officer, running through the after-start checks, discovers the engine's bleed valve has failed to open. The pilots cycle the switch. Once, then twice. No change. Everybody looks at each other and eyes start to roll. The valve is one of the more crucial components of the plane's air conditioning and pressurization system. Yes, there's another engine and another bleed valve, plus the auxiliary power unit, but when things like this happen, you can't simply blast off without either fixing the trouble or researching the exact requirements for deferral.

The captain stops the aircraft and sets the brakes. He calls the control tower and lets them know we'll need a few minutes. He sends off an ACARS note asking to chat with a mechanic. He calls the flight attendants and explains. He makes yet another apologetic announcement -- this one suitably sardonic. Then, with maintenance on the line, he and the first officer dig out a manual from the ship's library and are led through a series of troubleshooting steps.

What do you know, the valve opens.

Not soon enough, unfortunately, to save our ATC slot. Ten minutes will pass before we can be reinserted into the northbound choreography.

The plane takes off.

For the next hour, soaring through sunny skies at 37,000 feet, everybody on the plane is primed for something to go wrong. What will it be? Another malfunction? A freak snow squall? A bomb threat? Nothing happens. Not only is the flight smooth, quick and utterly free of interruption, but we're treated to glorious views of Philadelphia and New York City.

At 2:40 p.m. -- 24 hours late, almost to the minute -- we land at Logan. From all the way up front -- despite the rattle of touchdown and the noise of the engines roaring into reverse, we can clearly hear the passengers as they burst into applause.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.


Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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