Airline delays – sometimes you just can’t win

All human endeavors are plagued with delays. No doubt those apes in the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey were a few minutes late to the party when one of them had a hard time finding a suitable bone. Trains are often delayed everywhere but Switzerland, and roads are so congested all over the world that traffic delays are not even the butt of jokes these days. Air travel, on the other hand, is amazingly free of delays… and watch as his nose grows longer and longer!

Actually, delays in air travel occur at about the same rate as delays in other forms of transportation, especially those forms in which the number of users occasionally overwhelms the system. In fact, the majority of all transportation delays stem from overuse of the system. Although the Wright brothers probably had a few mechanical delays on December 3, 1903, the potential for air delays began to really grow the day the world’s second airplane was constructed.

In the world of aviation, delays have three main causes: mechanical delays (involving both the airplane itself and a wide array of ancillary equipment), weather delays, and system or throughput delays involving saturation of the air traffic system (these are, in turn, often initiated by weather). Operators (airlines and individual pilots) have control over only some of the causes of delays.

Mechanical delays can be minimized by careful attention to maintenance and inspections, along with an extra airplane or two on the property that can be used as a spare. But things are always susceptible to breaking at the last minute, even in the best run outfits. Weather can be coped with by training and equipping to the latest standards, but there are things like hurricanes, thunderstorms, blizzards, and certain kinds of icing conditions that simply cannot be safely handled. The ATC system could mayhap be upgraded, akin to adding lanes to a freeway, but although this is ongoing as we speak, it is glacially slow and extremely expensive. Meanwhile, more and more of us want to travel.

Airlines are almost always trying to better their on-time performance, the more so when the government takes an interest in such things, as it does from time to time. I recall the time when, back in the 1980s, the Department of Transportation (apparently overwhelmed by a sudden urge for clarity that has never existed elsewhere in government) began to publish the airlines’ on-time statistics. American’s hard-driving president Bob Crandall sagely perceived that whoever topped the ratings for the first year or so might derive some bragging rights from the achievement, rights that just might outlast their tenure at the top.

So for about a year, AA pulled out quite a few stops and succeeded in topping the feds’ list of on-time airlines. This was done, among other ways, by an all-hands-on-deck push to ensure that every airplane got out on time for its first flight of the day. Maintenance, the aircrews, the flight attendants, the ramp crews, the catering crews and passenger service all pitched in to ensure this result, with surprising success. It was also fortunate that this effort occurred at a time of relative labor peace on the property!

On time machine
A bold marketing claim for an airline.

It worked, and the poet laureates in the marketing department soon began creating advertisements that sang the praises of “The On-Time Machine,” an appellation that has seldom been applied since then to any airline! But for some years after that time, an aura of the On-Time-Machine clung to AA, long after we were eventually toppled off our perch.

No airline employee wants a delay. The corporate cultures at most airlines are distinctly non-Japanese; that is, blame is fixed, rather than problems. A delay of even the shortest duration will start a downhill flow of a substance that is neither colorless nor odorless. On some properties, too many delays can be detrimental to a career, sometimes terminally. No indeed – delays are an anathema to all.

Along the way, we must get one thing straight – there is no such thing as a “delayed” takeoff, for the simple reason that there is no scheduled takeoff time. The scheduled departure time is the block time, the time the wheels start turning (usually backwards) upon the start of pushback or taxi. This time is also the FAA’s definition of the beginning of flight time, as pilots log it. The time you actually get airborne is completely outside of the immediate control of the airline, or your pilot, and has no meaning other than whatever psychological importance it may have to you as a passenger. It is indeed a rite of passage, but not a scheduled one.

So, on we go to some delays that I have known. We can start with one that I created myself. One fine morning, while doing my walk around inspection as flight engineer on one of those first-flights-of-the-day that we were often so obsessed with getting out on time, I was inspecting the tires of my shiny Boeing 727. It was always my wont to inspect the tires closely, since they were and are a very important element of the collection of parts known as the airplane. Any damage to tires that is sufficient to be noticed is worthy of close examination, and this includes the small pebbles and shards of detritus that are often pressed against the tire surface as it rolls over the tarmac. I always took care to brush such things off the tire, lest they possibly come off on their own during takeoff and fly into one of the engines.

On this day I saw what appeared to be a small pebble, about half the diameter of a dime, adhering to the surface of one of the main gear tires. As I attempted to brush it off by hand, I was surprised to notice that it did not budge; in fact, it resisted all of my efforts to dislodge it. Closer examination (my eyesight was perfect back then!) revealed that it was not of mineral origin, but rather metal; and it appeared to have penetrated the tire to a significant depth. This was now out of my league, as far as an immediate fix was concerned, so I called maintenance and the ensuing delay began.

The mechanic immediately confirmed my suspicion that this metallic bit was only the tip of the iceberg. They began to change the tire, and when they had finished and managed to extract the offending bit of FOD (Foreign Object Damage), I was informed that what I had detected was a 5-inch bolt that had completely penetrated the tire, with only a small pebble-like remnant visible on the outside. It had apparently been there for at least one previous flight! Attention to detail paid off that day, but we were delayed some 30 minutes in the process.

Line of airplanes
A long and distinguished line of airplanes – which means a delay.

Fast forward many years, to the apex of my career in the left seat. We were bound for Rome one evening, and the lineup for takeoff was, as Goose in Top Gun might have said, “long and distinguished.” So long, in fact, that we would be able to shut down an engine while waiting, since we would be stationary for at least 30 minutes, and possibly more. But to our great surprise, the selected engine would not shut down! Now ordinarily this sort of dedication might be applauded – the little airplane that could, with engines that just would not quit. But the inability to shut down an engine is indicative of serious problems within it; and what might possibly ensue should we actually need to shut it down, perhaps for a fire or other failure?

We had immediate recourse to maintenance, via radio, who offered various ideas to get the engine stopped, none of which worked and one of which, pulling the fire handle, I declined to do lest we might not get it started again to taxi back to the gate (we were well overweight for single-engine taxi). By this time I was determined to get the airplane inspected more closely and get the problem definitively fixed. So I imparted to Ground Control the sad news that we had to return, only to be told that since we were nowhere near an intersecting taxiway from which we could escape the conga line, it would be a good hour before our part of the gaggle might begin moving enough to get us headed home.

And so it was.

Once we got to the gate, it turned out to be a matter of replacing a stuck fuel valve, which was a 30-minute job, and then we joined the conga line again. By now, of course, most of the line had long since taken off, so our delay was relatively minor, but we were over three hours late compared to our original schedule. There are never winds sufficient to overcome a three-hour delay, and so it was that we were three hours late arriving in Rome. It was one of the stranger situations I ever encountered – the inability to shut down an engine.

A flight to Bermuda from JFK is only around 90 minutes long, and when it also has a 32-hour layover on that delightful island it is a pleasure indeed. One evening we left the gate right on time, but unfortunately just as a line of thunderstorms was bearing down on the New York area. Early evening at JFK is rush hour, and the lineup was nearly 60 airplanes long, with us starting out in the tail-end-charlie position.

When things get this congested at JFK, the conga line wraps entirely around the airport, sometimes even using runways as taxiways to double up with the adjacent parallel taxiways. So things were that night. One by one, the western departure gateways were shut down as the storm drew closer, and that got things stalled completely, since the number one through five airplanes were all westbounds. You would think that someone might have anticipated that, and held the west departures off to one side somehow, but no.

Now in gridlock, the entire lineup watched from their cockpits as nature unleashed one of the most spectacular displays of lightning and thunder I have ever witnessed – the lightning was so close by and frequent that you could almost read by it on the darkened flight deck. We took nervous comfort in the notion that due to its rubber tires the airplane was insulated from the ground, but a time or two that confidence was shaken as lightning struck nearby. It took the storm nearly 30 minutes to move away from the immediate vicinity of the airport, but our ordeal was not yet done, because now the south and east departure gates were still shut off, and only a dribble of westbound flights were able to get out initially.

Lightning
No flying in that weather!

All in all, our out-to-off delay was over two hours, which was considerably longer than our eventual flight time to the island. Fortunately, the passengers had been front row witnesses to the spectacle outside, and needed no reminding that in flying, as in life, discretion is sometimes the better part of valor. This was one delay no one complained about!

The Mother of All Delays, at least in my career, took place, appropriately enough, at that vortex of all delays: Chicago O’Hare. This one was also back in the early days of my AA career, when I was flying sideways tending the fires and watering the horses. We were embarking upon a three-day trip that started, as so many did at AA in those days, with an LGA-ORD leg, to be followed by a flight to Tulsa or some such place. Our weather briefing at LGA (done live by dispatchers who, at that time, actually occupied the operations area upstairs in the days before AA brought them all to DFW, to a centralized dispatch facility) indicated that the weather at ORD was going to be “interesting,” in the Chinese sense. And so it proved to be.

We picked up our first holding instructions in the vicinity of Detroit, and spent some time circling the Motor City. Fortunately, the Captain and the dispatcher had agreed to carry as much fuel as the ship could bear, and so although we were quite heavy we enjoyed a surfeit of fuel, such that diverting to an alternate was not yet a concern, nor would it be for some considerable time. The cause of all of this was a massive line of thunderstorms moving from west to east across Illinois. It was dissipating, but still lively enough to thrash the ATC system at Chicago into submission for awhile. After about 30 minutes over Detroit we were advanced a bit west to the Pullman VOR, southwest of Grand Rapids, where we spent another half hour boring holes in the sky.

While this was going on, I queried the company on the number two radio as to the situation on the ground at ORD. The reply was intriguing, suggesting as it did a state of total chaos on the field. Apparently the airport had run out of room to handle airplanes since there were so many on the ground awaiting takeoff. For further entertainment, I tuned ORD ground control on that same radio and we listened with amazement to controllers who were out of space and ideas all at once. It did seem that, by strenuous effort, they had managed to keep the inner taxiway more or less fluid, at the price of keeping some airplanes just going around in circles until their gates opened up.

So when the weather near the airport began to dissipate (it actually more or less evaporated in situ, and we never did have to penetrate anything more significant than a rain shower, quite fortunately) they were able to accept arrivals even though there was still a good bit of weather off to the west, and many of their departure gateways were still hors de combat.

After around 45 minutes at Pullman, we were vectored toward the field, albeit with quite a few speed reductions. When we were on final, we could finally see what was happening – and I had never, before or since, seen so many large airplanes on one airport at one time. It looked like Oshkosh for Boeings! There were hundreds of planes, lined up and down every taxiway and several of the runways that were not in use. The line snaked past the Air National Guard, past that old Comet jet that was still decaying in place at that time, through the maintenance area, in out around and through the maze of taxiways that, in those days, bore evocative and occasionally humorous names instead of letters like Alpha and Bravo.

It took us the better part of 30 minutes to taxi to our gate, which was fortunately available. Yet another piece of good fortune for us was the fact that we were to keep the same airplane for the next leg of our journey; and dispatch, eager to avoid increasing their problems, kept it that way. So after about 45 minutes of unloading, refueling and loading we got back into the conga line, which did not seem to have diminished by as much as a single airplane.

ORD chart
When O’Hare runs out of taxiways, you know it’s busy.

In a move of sheer desperation, ORD ground control sent us off to the only patch of unoccupied concrete they had, way off at the northwest edge of the field at the departure end of 32L. In so doing, they informed us that they expected a delay for us of several hours. So we shut down all of the engines, and gave the flight attendants clearance to do a beverage service of sorts. But our fortune was to be better than most that day, for lo and behold the wind shifted, enough that they decided to start using 14R, the runway that we were number one for, for takeoffs.

They literally had to get us out of the way in order to be able to use it! As soon as the cabin crew was able to button everything up in back we were on our way to our next destination. The total delay, inbound and outbound, was over four hours. And we had it perhaps an hour better than just about everyone else that day. Later that evening, at the hotel, we toasted Fortune, hoping that she would continue to smile upon us. And she did, for I never again encountered such a delay in my career. Oh, there would be delays aplenty to come, but never involving that many airplanes on one field!

These days, airborne delays are becoming rare. The FAA and the airlines tend to hold airplanes on the ground, in so-called ground stops, to prevent airborne holding. Instead of being in an airliner flying in circles, you will probably spend your delay in one of the airport bars, which is certainly a more pleasant prospect than sitting in coach for what might seem an eternity with the seatbelt sign on. And when things start to really look bad, like a hurricane or a major winter storm, flights in the thousands are flat out cancelled, so most of us don’t even have to go to the airport at all, at least on the original day.

But spare a sympathetic thought for your crew when next you are delayed on a flight – their plans may be getting even more messed up than your own. And take what comfort you can from the plight of passengers on Amtrak, who can be delayed many hours by the myriad freight trains that often take priority on the rails. At least, while holding or waiting in the bar, you do not have to gaze upon the impudent cause of your delay, as you sit motionless on a side track watching a mile long hot-shot freight whiz by, to arrive at your destination hours, perhaps a day before you will get there. That must be frustrating – even in the dining car!

11 Comments

  • “We took nervous comfort in the notion that due to its rubber tires the airplane was insulated from the ground, but a time or two that confidence was shaken as lightning struck nearby. ” – Probably good to only learn now that rubber tires do nothing for lightning strikes. The bolt has travelled from (or to) a cloud hundreds or thousands of feet up. The fact that it won’t jump the inches between the ground and the wheel hub is often overlooked.

  • However, the metal skin of the aircraft protects the occupants via Faraday Cage Effect. So a metal aircraft is a relatively safe place to ride out a storm just like a car. Not sure how composites fare in passenger protection though.

  • I was a passenger a few years ago, flying CLT-JFK on an evening of horrible thunderstorms. Push back, delay, back to gate, option to de-plane, re-load, close the doors, no push, open the doors, scurry back for immediate push, canceled – took 2-3 hours in total. Only a couple of passengers on the fully loaded A-32x were annoyed, everyone else took it in stride with the crew. Didn’t make it to JFK that night (but my luggage did, somehow…) and was a day late getting to my final destination, but it was one of the least stressful delays ever.

    Arriving to my destination with above-average temps without luggage for two days was a bit less pleasant.

  • Nice article on airline delays.

    But a few corrections:

    First flight by the Wright brothers was December 17, 1903
    Also the abandoned airplane at ORD was a Denver Ports of Call Convair 990

  • I stand corrected on the date. Rather embarrassing actually – a pilot should know that date above all!
    On the other hand, although there may well have been a CV990 moldering away at ORD, there was definitely a Comet IV there as well. It was parked over toward what was then the Air Guard ramp, just north of the 32R threshold. It had belonged, so the legend went, to a nudist colony called Naked City! When I started flying for AA in 1977 it was there, and for some years afterward. I don’t recall what happened to it – probably scrapped in situ, since it was not flyable.

  • When I was a controller at LaGuardia, at least a couple of times a year we would have to shut off the arrivals because the next aircraft would not be able to turn off the runway. Every inch of the taxiways had an airplane on it, about 60 waiting in line to takeoff and another 20 or so arrivals that weren’t able to taxi to their gates. The departure delays were as much as 4 hours. Working ground control during those weather events was an exercise in excruciating torture!

  • “Dining car”? Not any more thanks to the asshat former Delta CEO destroying Amtrak by eliminating them. Apparently there is no bottom to the bar of making the search for profits as awful as possible.

  • I truly enjoyed reading your article “Airline Delays” – excellent writing Tony! Makes an old Cessna pilot such as myself appreciate what you guys in the Majors, and the ATC folks of course, have to deal with. Thanks for sharing!

  • I grew up hanging around ORD and there were several stories about that Comet. One identified the craft as a drug plane whose criminal pilots were arrested, and CPD didn’t know what to do with the airplane. The other, more probable story, claimed the plane was the tour plane of a European rock band who ran afoul of the IRS. The tax police caught up with them at O’Hare and seized their plane. There it sat for many years, a source of amusement and wild stories for the locals and travelers.

  • I am a retired Chicago Center controller that worked the Pullman arrival sector to Chicago Ohare (ORD) for 25 years. I was working a midnight shift when an American Airlines flight departed Grand Rapids (GRR) headed to ORD. There was still weather in the Chicago area and I issued instructions for the flight to hold at the PIVOT intersection. In talking to the pilots I learned that they had held at PMM VOR earlier in the evening after a delayed departure from LaGuardia (LGA) before finally diverting to GRR because of low fuel, where they sat on the ground for a few hours. They laughed and told me that they had plenty of fuel for holding this time. After about 45 minutes of holding the pilot advised me that company was diverting them to their alternate Indianapolis (IND). After working out the new route I transferred control to the next sector and the flight began the trip south. A few minutes later I noticed that the airplane was now headed east. I called the neighboring controller and asked what was going on. He said the I was not going to believe this but company was now sending the flight back to LGA!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *