Moving Parts: Another Airline Story

It’s 94 degrees outside, the ship is full of hot people, the air conditioning cannot keepmoving parts up, thunderstorms are moving in and we’re #43 in line for take-off. It’s rush hour at JFK and I’m the Captain taking 172 people non-stop to San Francisco. We have 5 ½ hours of real estate in front of us – after we wait in the runway queue. The folks onboard probably think the toughest part for them is over; TSA security check-points, time constraints and long lines top their lists. Tonight, they are wrong.

We’ve been put in special penalty box until the bad weather has passed along our route of flight. The ATC system is already at capacity and in addition to those 42 airplanes in front of us there are four of them on a similar routing. We each need 20 minutes of spacing between us. Have you done the math yet?

The folks in business class that I greeted personally 30 minutes ago couldn’t give me the time of day as they peered annoyingly over their Blackberry’s. I’ve got their attention now as I make an announcement that details our predicament.

We shut down the engines, sit and wait. One hour, two hours; no movement is punctuated by my regular announcements that – we’re still in line and the weather has not abated.

Here’s where it gets sticky. Unbeknownst to the passengers, at the 2 hour point I am required to plan an exit strategy because of something called The Passenger Bill of Rights, a wonderfully feckless and debilitating piece of political legislation that dictates I am required to return to the terminal by the 3 hour point to allow people to disembark – even if no- “one” desires to do so. Heavy DOT fines for the company and a vicious spanking for the Captain if I don’t.

Finally, after 2 hours and 20 minutes we catch a break – our departure gate has opened and we can get back in line (tail end of what is now a 25 plane line-up, of course) and move in the direction of the runway. Still, the math isn’t adding up.

But now I have a new problem which is actually a blessing in disguise; a non-English speaking, hefty, sweating passenger with chest pains and heavy breathing. In spite of the chance to jump back in line, the dismal math compels me to be a humanitarian. We return to where we started 2 ½ hours ago.

Enroute back to the terminal we find the only unoccupied jet way, deal with ATC and flight plan logistics, fuel calculations, emerging onboard catering and lavatory issues, maintenance discrepancies stemming from the use of emergency oxygen, coordinate paramedics and security … and oh yes, work on a new flight plan that avoids a flight cancellation because the flight crew is about to run out of on-duty time. And did I mention the need to convey the bad news about our return to the gate to our passengers. Incredibly, most of them took it well. Apparently they were humanitarians as well.

Back at the terminal, EMT’s tell the Russian lady she is not going to San Francisco and instead will be concluding the days travel aboard a stretcher. She gets the message even though she hasn’t the faintest idea what the EMT guy with the Brooklyn accent just told her. She did me a favor by allowing us to return to the gate with grace. Nobody gets upset at the airline when a fellow passenger has a heart attack.

I proceed to make an announcement which elaborates on the aforementioned blessing in disguise and its impact on the much heralded Passenger Bill of Rights. By their response, apparently they don’t much care for said bill of rights. They voice their dissatisfaction with a chorus of, “to hell with it … let’s get going”. So much for Kate Hanni’s ( idea of broad stroke passenger rights activism (I imagine she’ll be sending me a snarky email – again).

I lay the ground rules; they have 10 minutes, no more; to decide if they want to continue to San Fran at which time the aircraft door will close and their decision to opt in or out will have ended. Experience has taught me that offering too many options to passengers leads to a cat herding exercise. Our ability to continue the flight now was hinged to the likelihood of getting in the air quickly.

Little did I know that our company had already given up on these odds, canceled the flight and released us from duty; estimating we didn’t have a prayer of getting airborne in time. I wasn’t about to give up so easily on our passengers. Besides, I couldn’t guarantee the crew’s safety if we were caught sneaking off the aircraft with our luggage.

Meanwhile, my creative first officer was successful finding a new route for a quick getaway from a different runway while I was telling an overly aggressive passenger that I was, in fact, ignoring her obnoxiously inquisitive behavior. Like Russian lady, she got the message and returned to 19F to the cheers of her nearby seatmates.

The cubicle guys reinstate the flight before it hits everybody’s PDA, tells us to close the door and get going. We’re airborne with three minutes to spare. Five hours and 12 minutes later we land in low ceilings and reduced visibility in San Francisco.

Passengers disembark our flight bestowing grateful appreciation to the crew for staying the course and getting them to their destination in spite of pretty bad odds. Ok, not so much.

Why do I write this? It’s not because we did such a great job. Frankly, it was just another day at the office. It’s because there’s another side to the air travel story; the story told by the ones who wear those neat uniforms.

I have a neighbor who knows a few things about airlines, travel, and misery as he literally flies around the world. He doesn’t hesitate to highlight for me his low points. I get it and at times, even feel his pain.

But here’s another perspective. Over the course of the recent holiday weekend, the airline I work for delivered 1.4 million passengers (yes, you read that correctly) to their destinations all over the globe on airplanes (regrettably, some not built for comfort) that were 87% full and had departed on-time, 77% of the time. Not too shabby.

The person in the window seat only knows about three or four of the hundreds of moving parts required to get just one airplane to the runway, let alone to its destination. Consider that perspective every time the airline does get it right or that incredibly low percentage of time when they don’t. Quite likely that inexplicable delay isn’t the fault of the employees in the neat uniforms that sling the sodas and peanuts your way. Maybe it’s all those moving parts about which you know very little.


2 Responses

  1. Scott,

    Really enjoyed this article a lot. I think it should be required reading on all delayed flights. In addition, I might have to print it up myself, so the next time someone complains to me, usually at a party or over dinner, about their flight I can wave it in front of their persnickety nose. Especially as the flight they are usually complaining about is not even on our airline.

    David Adler

  2. Thanks, Dave

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