The flying public has a fair idea of the problems that can disrupt an airline system. After all, they see them every Thanksgiving and Christmas. The television networks all feature “talking heads” posted in every major airline terminal, interviewing frustrated passengers who have not gotten home to see Grandma because every damn person in the nation wants to be somewhere else over the holidays—just when the weather is the worst and the most junior employees are working across the system. The FAA air traffic controllers all want to be home for the holidays, the airline employees want to be home for the holidays, and both systems work strictly on seniority. So, the most junior folks with the least experience at their respective jobs are all working when the going gets the toughest.
What follows is a description of what happened to me during Christmas 1995, when I was one of the most junior pilots (on this seniority list, but with 19 years in the industry), flying with one of the most junior captains, Frank R.
Frank and I were destined to fly a four-day trip, with overnight stays in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Providence, Rhode Island (twice). Our first day (December 21st) was supposed to be five legs, starting in Oakland, California. The first stop was scheduled to be Los Angeles, continuing from there to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Our flight to LAX was without incident.
The leg to Albuquerque was another story. New Mexico had enjoyed a tremendous snowstorm the day and evening previous, and by the time we could get within hailing distance of the airport, it was below landing minimums in fog, precipitated by the rapid evaporation of all that snow. We held at 14,000 feet, west of the airport, waiting for the wind to develop that would open the field for landing, but it did not happen quickly enough for us. We diverted to Amarillo, Texas, for fuel so we could come back and try again. When we got there, we lost about 30 passengers who were headed for Amarillo or Dallas, put on a load of fuel, and launched again for Albuquerque.
This time we were able to land at Albuquerque, but we were three hours late: one hour spent holding, one spent flying to AMA, and another spent flying back. We deplaned and enplaned passengers and their baggage (and there was a pot full of it) and departed for Kansas City (MCI). Our flight number had not changed at all, as we were supposed to use the same designator all the way to Little Rock (LIT), but we were three hours late.
By the time we arrived at MCI, we had been flying for seven hours actual flight time, and 10 hours duty time. We again deplaned and enplaned passengers and their baggage, took on a load of fuel, and got ready to leave for St. Louis, Missouri (STL). First though, we had to sit out an hour-long gate hold for STL. The weather there had gone to hell in a hand-basket and they were holding traffic for that city on the ground at their respective departure points, so as to not overload the ATC system with inbound airplanes.
Finally, it was our turn to depart on the hour-long flight to STL. We had no more than gotten airborne when we were given instructions to fly at 250 knots (well below our normal cruise speed) and given delay vectors that were eventually converted to a clearance to a holding pattern west of STL. We held there for another 45 minutes before it became obvious that the airport would not open any time soon. By that time it was ten o’clock at night, and we had started at seven that morning. I, for one, was bushed.
In our system, the first officer (me) carries the lion’s share of the load, executing all the tasks necessary to get the airplane ready for flight, and I had been doing it for 15 hours. I told Frank it was time to get the damn airplane on the ground, as I had damn well had enough. At that point, he acquiesced and we coordinated a diversion to Little Rock. We arrived there at 11pm, eight hours late. To give you an idea how messed up the system was, the crew that was supposed to take the airplane from us had been sitting in the terminal for eight hours already, and had their entire pairing yet to fly.
We were not the norm for the system that day, but with over 2000 flights operating in our system alone, there were a large number of delayed and cancelled flights for our scheduling department to try to sort out and re-route for that day and subsequent days. And the meltdown had just begun.
Frank and I went to the hotel, too pooped to pop. We were told by scheduling when we contacted them to stay in the hotel until 11am in order to be legally rested, then go back to the airport and deadhead (ride in the back of the airplane) to Chicago Midway Airport (MDW), then on to Providence (PVD) to go to another hotel, in order to be in place for the third day of our pairing.
When we got to the airport in the morning, the system was even more screwed up than it had been the night before. We managed to get on a flight to MDW that was running three hours late, but when we got to Chicago, the system was virtually shut down. Scheduling in Dallas had no idea where pilots or flight attendants were, where they should be, or how they would get there. It was a zoo, to use a polite phrase. No one knew what the hell was going on. There were pilots and flight attendants walking around, calling scheduling and being put on hold for indefinite periods of time, gate agents pulling out their hair, trying to help or hold off customers and their questions, and the poor, unfortunate travelers stuck with their kids and things in terminals far from home with no answers forthcoming as to when they might get to home or Grandma’s place.
The flight Frank and I were to catch to Providence had been cancelled. We wandered about for an hour and a half, when Frank found out somehow that there was a ferry flight going to Providence. We got on it, just we and the pilots (there apparently were no flight attendants available to ride it and make it available for hauling passengers), and away we went. I slept most of the way, as I had not yet recovered from the previous day’s marathon. Arriving in PVD, it was off to yet another hotel, without having done a minute’s worth of work for that day.
On arising the next day, we proceeded to the airport to take our flight to Ft. Lauderdale (FLL), and return to PVD. The terminal at Providence was under construction, trying to rise to the challenge of handling all the extra passengers we attracted to their facility. We had only one gate in operation (Gate 15), and there were a full complement of airplanes to load and unload at that one gate all day long. Since we were the first aircraft out of the gate that morning, we left on time for FLL with 137 passengers aboard—a full load.
The flight to FLL was uneventful with smooth, clear skies south of New York City. We arrived on time in FLL, the first time we had done so since the first arrival of the pairing in LAX two days before. We deplaned and enplaned passengers again, got a full load of fuel and baggage and departed for PVD with another 137 passengers and a dispatcher in the jumpseat. The dispatcher was doing his yearly “familiarization flights,” and had put them off until the last week of the year. So he was out riding around the system during the worst mess anyone had ever seen.
After we got out of 10,000 feet, the dispatcher told us just how bad the situation was, system-wide. He said the dispatchers had been going into the scheduling office to tell the schedulers, “we have three flight attendants in LIT (STL, OKC, HOU, you name the city) who are volunteering to go anywhere you want them to. What do you want us to tell them for you?” He went on to tell us the schedulers had finally closed and locked their doors and took their phones off the hook and refused to take any more input from anyone, they were so overloaded. At that point, we thought we were golden, as we were on-time and going to the hotel again in PVD. What could possibly go wrong?
We soon found out. Arriving in PVD with its one lonely gate, we found three loaded airplanes on the ground ahead of us for that one gate. Shortly after we left, it started snowing heavily in fits and spurts, and the airport authorities could not stay ahead of the accumulation. One of our airplanes had been kept at the gate while the authorities tried to plow the snow off the ramp, and consequently, our subsequent airplanes were delayed getting on and off the gate. The bottom line was we held 137 minutes (2 hours, 17 minutes) on the ramp with 137 paying passengers on board. They were not happy, and neither were we, but at least we went to the hotel to cool our jets and gird our loins for the last day of the pairing.
Out to the airport for the fourth day of the pairing, we had another full airplane for the Christmas Eve flights across the country to Oakland, via MCI and LAX. The weather was fair to partly shitty, at least at MCI. Frank contacted Dispatch about the MCI situation, where it was snowing heavily. Dispatch told him we had three de-ice trucks working and no one had experienced any delays out of there (yet). So off we went to the Mid-Continent International Airport at Kansas City.
We departed on time and arrived on time, but things went to hell just after we pushed off the gate. One of the three deice trucks ran out of juice, one broke down, and the one still operating had two airplanes to deice in heavy snow conditions. Only one truck deicing an airplane is worthless in heavy snow, as the hold-over time (the time during which the deice fluid is effective) is less than the time it takes the one truck to clean the airplane of ice and snow. So we took another hour delay waiting for the second and third trucks to be placed back in operation so we could get out of there.
Fortunately, Los Angeles was clear and beautiful in mid-50 degree temperatures when we arrived, so that presented no difficulties to us. We got turned around in about 25 minutes and headed off to Oakland for the last leg of “the four-day from hell”. On arrival in Oakland, we were all relieved to be done and looking forward to going home (if we could get there on full airplanes) and spending Christmas with our families.
But it was not to be, at least for one of our three lady flight attendants. When the door opened to deplane the passengers, a ramp supervisor came aboard. He informed the “A” flight attendant that one of them was going to have to go to the next gate and work another airplane all the way back to Baltimore. It wasn’t a flight attendant supervisor or a member of management that forced her to work all the way back across the country, it was a ramp sup that took it upon himself to find a flight attendant to work. And the lady that took the flight was the junior flight attendant, even though she had little kids at home waiting for her to be home for Christmas.
So the next time you watch “talking heads” yammering about all the poor passengers stuck in terminals all over the country when the weather turns bad at the holidays, remember that those airplanes and terminals are staffed by employees who want to be home with their families, too. And they are all the junior folks with the least experience having to deal with the situation, trying to do their best for their customers.
- Hand-Flying a Category IIIA approach and landing with almost no visibility - March 31, 2023
- Behind the scenes of an airline meltdown - January 4, 2023
Great article, Mike! It brought back memories. Any airline employee that’s been around for more than a few years has had a trip like yours, although yours ranks up there as one of the worst.
As Paul Harvey used to say, “Now for the rest of the story.”
Great recap and it appears to have reoccurred this Christmas season. I’m sure it will not be the last.
This is the part of the story that never makes the national news. It seems like only bureaucrats and angry travelers are in that story. Thank you
EXCELLENT points! Conditions beyond control, employees are people, too, and less experienced working their best. Everyone must remember these things when experiencing any level of inconveniences of air travel.
Oh the glimmer of hope, your words in the middle of it all, “We departed on time and arrived on time.”
You can have the latest and greatest scheduling software, but when Mother Nature enters the argument, you will always lose. This problem will always be with us, until the kinks are worked out of Transporter technology. According to Star Trek, that will not happen until the early 22nd century. Kudos to the airline personnel who do their best to deal with almost impossible scheduling situations at the holiday travel crunch.
As a frequent flyer for work during the last 22 years, it’s always good to hear the other side of the story from the horse’s mouth. 99.5% of the time people try to do the best they can with the tools they have. when things are out of control what else can you expect. Thanks for trying.
Hey Mike, you and I shared a great career at the same airline.
Even with all the SNAFU’s I loved going to work and enjoying the passengers, crews etc.
Isn’t it sad after all of those years our airline’s scheduling department still locks the door and takes the phone off the hook!
For everyone reading, it’s like Mike wrote. It’s not the frontline employees fault. The problems start at the top and roll down hill. The employees are left picking up the pieces.
Great article Mike! Congratulations on your retirement!
I flew with Mike before, and Shane, you did my off-probation PC. Any problems I ever had after that can be laid at your feet!
Oh my goodness Jim, you wouldn’t believe the stuff laying at my feet! I owe a bunch of peeps Single Malt for keeping me out of trouble. I can add you to that list ;)
Well written, Mike! I remember it not so fondly either.
Jim, I was the FO on a trip to AUS with you in the back. It was one of my best landings ever, and as you walked past the cockpit on your way out, you asked if we were down yet. Made my day!
Still have that A-10 shell I gave you many years ago?
Indeed I do, Jim. It’s as big and shiny as ever!
Hope all’s well with you, my friend.
Things are very well, sir. I’ve been retired for a year and a half and life is good. I hope things are well with you too.
Endured several of these system-wide meltdowns in my career…
So good to be retired!
You bring back many memories of trips we all endured. I learned quickly that remaining as a senior pilot a while longer in my then current seat rather than upgrading asap allowed me to fly trans cons and avoid ORD or DEN on those days and sail on over to typically lovely LAX or even SFO..
Yep! had a few to many trips like that with 38 years of airline flying.
Your last statement was a little off the mark. You said the least experienced are working the holidays. Not always true. I, and many like me, worked this past Christmas. I’m 56 with over 20,000 hours and have been employed by 9 different airlines.
Great article Mike! Glad you’re doing well! I fondly remember Junior Assigning a Flight Attendant (with her permission) during that same mess! We were 1 FA short on a flight to GEG and the aircraft was full. Scheduling wouldn’t answer their phone so I told Dispatch I found a FA. He said he would tell Scheduling and off we went! That episode started a long-time friendship with the FA and her husband and with my wife and myself. We still laugh about the time she was assigned by her Captain, and the story came up again during the latest meltdown. As much as I miss the people and Company since my retirement I sure am glad I wasn’t working at the time!
I read this article with great interest after experiencing the news (talking heads) reports of the Christmas debacle. Having been on both sides of the fence as an aircraft owner, private pilot (ASMEL)Instrument, as well as an extensive user of commercial flights for business and an avocation as a traveling musician over a period of 35 years starting around 1960 when flying both privately and as an airline passenger, the observations as time went on were that the system was always in a constant state of change and not for the better. Air travel was becoming much more popular for the masses of humanity but less so for regular users. As usual the almighty dollar was driving the changes with tighter cramped seating and rules that had originally been truly accommodating for regular travelers. It seemed obvious that commercial airlines which were once managed by air travel enthusiasts many of whom had been or were actual pilots were fast becoming victims of their own success taken over by managers from the ranks of lawyers, accountants and other money manager manipulators whose goals were far from the originals. Since I was also a pilot, however, I could well understand snafus that were related both to weather and equipment issues actually being amazed that commercial air travel worked as well as it did. The advent of computerized procedures, however, allowed the system to grow substantially which might have been originally thought of as a positive but, in my opinion, has now come to what we have today – commercial air travel experiences which have no relation to what they once were with a completely overloaded system – too many planes flying to airports which simply can’t handle both the plane and passenger loads under circumstances which belong strictly to mother nature and the natural limitations of humans to create infallible machinery. In my own personal case, the result is that at age 86, I’m now driving a car to destinations where air travel was once preferred. The hassle of commercial air travel just isn’t worth it and I’m too old to fly my own planes anymore. I’ve recently built a full sized simulator of the Cessna 340 which was my last owned and flown plane and am enjoying “flying” again and keeping up with Air Facts.
Aviation employees: you have one of the toughest professions on the planet. THANK YOU for your sacrifice getting the flying public to their destinations to the best of your ability; which means oftentimes you’re NOT home with your friends or families. So mote it be.
Back in the day, I can say that now that the sun has set on a great career, the author and I worked in a plane that had overhead power, prop, and fuel cutoff controls. A leg not over 42 minutes and not over 6000 ft. Building time and experience. He was like a farmer, outstanding in his field! After our career paths forked like so many do, we all have experienced similar situations as detailed here in this story and hopefully take away a sliver or two of knowledge and wisdom with us.
I developed a saying when the dominos began and continued to fall in a bad event like this and others: Mine is not to wonder why, I just go to the airport and fly. And most of the time when the re-routes, extended days, etc. led to some exertion of mind and body the soothing prescription was that most of the time the end result was feeling like an ATM had distributed the fruits in currency, if the rigs were good!!
Thanks Mike, for directing me to this site and the stories, I’ll try to make it a part of my online perusing.
I sat on the ground waiting for my pax at Colorado Front Range FBO last week and had a great discussion with a retired pilot from Southwest. He said that after Herb Kelleher left, the afterglow kept things running pretty good for awhile during the period when accountants became the CEOs. Every year they were going to spend a billion bucks on new scheduling software and hardware.
Every year it was too hard to hurt the bottom line with that so they didn’t. Add to that gen X & Z crews who’s work ethic allows calling in sick because it’s Christmas and ground handlers in Denver who walked out due to sub zero temperatures, stir in a bit of weather and there you go.
Mr. Mader, you’re right about the computer failure stuff and dead wrong about the Gen X & Z crews. This GenXer was working the holidays, along with plenty of others. The Denver ramp crew, where I’m based, just wasn’t on board with working mandatory overtime in -20 degree weather, and I can’t say I blame them. Add in the ‘leadership’ who threatened termination if people refused the “mandatory” double shifts, and yup, you got problems.
This is a good article, and I’m just sad that from 1995 to 2022 we’re still having the same IT problems.
Apologies, Yeah with that being the case the management bears responsibility for that too. I’m 61 and started my working life as a kid as a sawmill worker, welder, miner in the pit of a “recession”. I probably would have worked through that back in the day but it’s not the way management should treat people.
There are so many folks who don’t have a clue how the airline business works, and just how delicate the balance is to “keep the clock ticking”. Most people think just because the schedule board says there’s a flight from point A to point B that they have a right to be on that flight and that it damned well better be on time. I’ll never forget a flight I took from Jacksonville, FL, many years ago on a very hot, humid summer afternoon. The valve that directs air from the “start cart” to the motor to “crank it up” wasn’t working, so they couldn’t get the motor started. It was to be a relatively quick fix, so the pilot did not want to de-plane the passengers, as that would have incurred a big delay, but it necessitated shutting the aircraft all the way down and, needless to say, it got hot and stuffy real quick inside that aluminum tube. I had a window seat and could see the maintenance guys “busting hump” to get the plane fixed and all the paperwork signed off. They were dripping in sweat. We ended up only being 30 minutes late pushing back from the gate, but you should have heard the “bitching & moaning” from the passengers during those 30 minutes. By all rights, that airline could have said, “We’re sorry folks, the plane is down. You’ll need to find another flight to get where you’re going.” But, instead, folks worked to fix the issue and get the plane in the air. Do I absolve SWA for not upgrading their scheduling system? No. But I applaud the “ground troops” who did whatever it took to try and make things works when the world was falling around their heads.
As soon as the paradigm shifts from “the objective is to maximize value to the shareholders” to “the objective is to serve customers and empower employees whereby shareholders benefit” and the all-consuming American psychosis with obscene greed and abject stupidity in the corporate suites comes to an end, nothing will change and “accountant CEOs” will continue to degrade the quality of life for everyone involved. The Stupidity. It Burns.
Well done my friend.
The sad part of this ugly situation is that upper management was told over and over what needed to be done, but they had ALL the answers from HQ. They choose to listen to their YES people and not the hard working employees.
When people like Herb and Jim Wimberly left, it started down hill so fast because we lost touch from the everyday hard working employees at Southwest Airlines. This will take years to recover, if it ever does recover, and it hurts badly after 34 years at Southwest Airlines this was the airline that employees loved and people loved to fly.
I pray that Bob Jordan has the leadership and fortitude to make things better. Bob just one piece of advise…… LISTEN TO YOUR PEOPLE.
And to add to the mix the military sends troops during this period with orders to be there at specified times and dates!
Same Airline, different year, Christmas 1998. Spent a four-day pairing very similarly through the Midwest and East Coast leaving a lot of tracks in the snow and reroutes each day as a very junior Captain. The workers pulled it off pretty well! Hardly a meltdown that year as a lot of real time innovation got the folks where they wanted to be, if a tad late. A much smaller operation then and the dispatchers, schedulers and crews were able to juggle all the changes and weather with good results. Cheers to the troops!
An extremely well written article. You should submit it to The NY Times Editorial Board as a Guest Opinion. Seriously…
My wife and I are guilty of being among those who tend to clog up the system during Christmas. You see, both our daughters and their respective families live in PDX, and we reside in the Bay Area. SWA has been, and always will be our preferred means of travel up there and back (or just about anywhere for that matter). This year was a little different. I feel like we dodged a bullet. My wife flew up a few days early to help out with childcare. Since I was the package-hauler, I was to drive up on the 23rd. Then the weather decided to play her hand by setting up an ice storm due to hit PDX in the afternoon/evening of the 23rd. No problem for me. I just rearranged my Part 91 schedule a bit, and hit I-5 for a lovely 11 hour slog in the rain. I arrived late afternoon on the 22nd and hunkered down at my daughter’s house.
That was the day the Meltdown began.
As predicted, the ice storm began in earnest the evening of the 23rd. The entire PDX metropolitan area was hovering around -8° to -6°C, while the temperature at 3000 was +6°C, with moderate to heavy precipitation. When we woke up on Christmas Eve, everything was covered in clear ice about 1/2” thick, and that was covered in a layer of what appeared to be snow, but was actually ice pellets. Freezing Drizzle and more ice pellets ruled the day. I heard on the local news that KPDX was pretty much at a standstill from all the ice, and braking action was poor to nil. I listened to KPDX ATIS, and ran a hypothetical FRAT. It was off the chart… You certainly wouldn’t have caught me trying to fly in that crap.
I texted all my Part 121 friends, 4 of whom work for SWA out of KOAK, three pilots and one FA, wishing them a Merry Christmas, and to be safe out there. I didn’t even want to ask them how it was going out there. I could feel the disturbance in the force already.
Then we started hearing from friends who were traveling. The horror…
We’re doing the commute later this week for our grandson’s birthday. I’m crossing my fingers it all goes off smoothly, but if there’s any hiccups, I know it won’t be from lack of effort on the part of the front-line personnel at SWA. They are the best in the business, and it pains me to see them hamstrung by inadequate operations system support structure.
The weather over the entire nation during the last week of December was truly abysmal, and did indeed strain the entire air transportation system across the board, but the fact that SWA was unable to recover to anything resembling normal operations for better than a week due to the antiquated scheduling, crew, and dispatch systems speaks volumes about where the priorities of the upper management and BOD’s lay.
We must keep the pressure on SWA management and board. Everybody; Consumers, Regulators, Unions, and the like needs to keep howling like Banshees for them to aggressively improve the infrastructure that supports Operations.
Thank you, and everyone else at SWA for your service.
Cheers, Drew Kemp
As we used to say in the military when our dropped bomb his precisely on the target…the score was…”SHACK!”
Well, Drew, if that last paragraph was your last bombing pass over the target, and I were the Range Officer…your score would be….”SHACK!”
Lostsa names on here I recognize, and I reckon they’ll recognize mine, too. My 28 yrs at SWA was the best ‘job’ a person could have – at least anyone who loved Aviation as we all do. Herb’s finger on the whole operation made it work. He was the first CEO smart enuff to realize that when he empowered US, his employees, to ‘do the right thing by the customer’, he would get his desired Successful Airline. And he did. As a Captain, I cannot begin to tell you the times we made decisions that made the whole operation work. Rules? Of course! Safety? ALWAYS first. But Herb’s empowerment of each of us kept it going MUCH better than some guy/gal sitting at a computer in a windowless office in the sunshine on a clear day…..
But ONE time I would have rejected “Herb’s command”….In MSY, taxiing back into the gate before takeoff, as a thunderstorm with it’s associated microbursts arrived just before we could get airborne….and seeing we would have an hour or so before all the storms moved away….I deplaned the jet and one irritated pax scoffed at me and said ” I know Mr Kellerger (right then I knew he was F.O.S.), and he will hear about this!” And my response..”Sir, Mr. Kelleher, himself, could not make me take off into that thunderstorm.” :-) :-). And, of course, he wouldn’t even ask. Best. Boss. Ever.
I retired from United 2 years ago after a 31 year career. As a captain everyone looks up to you. Good days bad days I have tried to take care of crew and passengers Sometimes it wasn’t pretty but we can only take care of our part of the sky the jet our crews and passengers. I’ve been there
Remember the old adage: when you have time to spare, go by air! Great article!
That’s what I was going to say!
Thank you for the insightful article. It is easy to forget there are people just like us on the other side of the counter or in the tower or back office. I will keep that in mind next time I am flying.