FLIGHT DELAYS “Nobody likes them!”


“Nobody likes them!”

Of course, as a pilot I’ve had plenty of them, and for many reasons. None of the reasons could be blamed on the airline itself. I can assure you that no one wants that airplane moving through the air more than the airline. Airplanes sitting at the gate are losing money by the minute.

Most delays are due to adverse weather conditions, and those are easily explained and understood by everyone. No one wants to fly through a thunderstorm, especially pilots. We understand their power and the damage they can do with turbulence, lightning and hail. Blizzards mean snow storms with strong winds, along with slick, icy runways and require de-icing delays. Strong winds will bring a lot of turbulence. All of these demand reasonable delays.

Then there are those other harder to explain delays. The next reason for delays, after weather events, is mechanical problems. It is often said, “I would rather be on the ground wishing I was in the air, than in the air wishing I was on the ground!” That is especially true with mechanical problems. If they can be identified on the ground and fixed, let’s do that. Finding problems at 37,000 feet is never a good thing.

Some mechanical things are just a nuisance. For instance, every seat must have a working seat belt, even if the seat is not occupied. I had to delay a flight one day waiting for a mechanic to bring a seat belt. Annoying, but required by law.

Once I got into an argument, which I won, with a mechanic. My instrument panel lights were not working. He wanted me to go ahead with the flight. It was nighttime, and I was not about to takeoff with no instrument panel lights. I had to go into his office and show him, in his manual, that the lights were a ‘no go’ item. It only took a few minutes to fix the problem, but the argument was about 30 minutes.

One evening, the 2nd officer, after doing his ‘walk around,’ came running up the airplane stairs and chased down the incoming flight crew. He asked them, “what did you hit?” The captain said they had not hit anything. The 2nd officer brought the captain back to look out the window at the right side of the airplane. Clearly, they had hit something. The area around the wing root looked like someone had taken a baseball bat to it. It was smashed in, and there was a bloody streak running from the wing up to the # 2 engine in the tail. It was a bird strike. Obviously, that flight was delayed. They brought us a different airplane.

Bird strikes cause delays. With any bird strike, the engines must be examined to determine if any damage has been caused.

Believe it or not, unruly passengers also cause delays. I’ve had to delay a flight because someone with a coach ticket decided to take a first class seat, and refused to move. I called the gate agent and had them removed from the flight. In my book, I tell the story of a flight that landed in Rockford, Ill because of bad weather in Chicago. An unruly passenger decided he wanted off the airplane and proceeded to open an armed door, causing the escape slide to deploy. That grounded that airplane! Those passengers had to be bussed to Chicago. There were passengers waiting in Chicago to board that airplane. Since it never arrived, it had to be replaced by a much smaller airplane, causing even further delays.

Then there are ‘legal’ delays. For instance, each flight must carry the airplane’s log book. On occasion, a flight will take off with the wrong log book. In that case, maintenance must recreate a log book for the outgoing airplane from the computer records. Of course, the airplane with the wrong book also has a problem, and a book must also be ‘recreated’ for them.

I walked to the gate in Denver and found a different airplane from the one shown on my paperwork. I had to either get the right airplane, or get the right paperwork. Paperwork was easier, and it only took a few minutes to get it corrected.

We pushed back from the gate one day in Denver on time. Then the company called to tell us that we were several thousand pounds overweight. They asked us to sit on the ramp and burn off the fuel. So, there we sat, for about 25 minutes burning fuel. I understand that weight is very important to how the airplane flies. However, I don’t think anyone really knows how accurately much these older airplanes weight, after years of dirt buildup.

Temperature is also very important to how the airplane flies. In Phoenix and Las Vegas, in the summer the temperature can easily exceed 120 degrees. The performance charts in our manuals only go up to 120. When the temp gets higher than that, we delay. Now, of course, if the airplane can fly at 120 degrees, it can surely fly at 123 degrees. However, we again get into legalities. One day, United didn’t want to delay a flight for just a couple of degrees, so they called the airplane manufacturer and asked if they could get performance charts for higher temps. The answer was, ‘of course,’ but the cost would be in the millions of dollars. They decided to take the delay!

One day, I was sitting at the gate in Savannah, Georgia while the plane was being boarded. There were several children looking out the terminal window at the airplane. I decided to be friendly and open my window and wave at them. I unlocked the window and began to crank it back. The window fell out of its socket and landed on the floor! Thankfully, that was a brief delay. It only took a mechanic a few minutes to come up and reseat the window.

Also, in my book, I describe an event at Reagan National Airport. The fueler made a mistake with the paperwork. In aviation, the paperwork is about as important as the ability of the pilot and airplane to fly. The paperwork he gave us made no sense, his shift had ended, and he was gone. The only option we had was to drain the tanks and refuel starting with empty tanks. That caused a delay of more than two hours.

I could probably go on with things that cause delays. Every flight is different, and we certainly want every flight to be safe. We also want every flight to meet legal requirements. Everyone on the airline is working to get the flight out on time, but  for many different reasons, that just can’t happen with every flight. I can assure the reader, the airline is doing everything in its power to get you going on your way, SAFELY!

By Captain Nancy Aldrich, Aviation Writer


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