Why can’t you call in another pilot?

Major weather events can have a huge impact on flight schedules. Flights are delayed and cancelled, but why when the weather has past are flights still leaving late or being cancelled?

Major weather events are a huge headache for airlines. So much planning and precision has gone into scheduling every aspect of running an airline. The fact that airlines are able to move so many people with so many moving parts is a true example human organization and coordination. Think about it, when you arrive at the airport there are staff to check you in, staff to manage your bag, screening officers for security, the pilots and flight attendants have to be brought on time from their hotel to the airport, maintenance personnel have worked on the aircraft and have it ready to go, dispatchers have planned the flight and ordered the fuel, the fueling personnel have fueled the aircraft, catering staff have loaded the aircraft with the right amount of food, cargo is loaded, bags are loaded, passengers are loaded, the crew complete their checks, ground crew push the aircraft back, de-icing staff clean ice off the plane, and air traffic controlers guide the aircraft to its desination where a whole other army of choreographed staff are ready to greet you! Air Canada, for example, on average does over 1,600 flights per day!

The point is, there are so many variables in an airline that when a significant weather event throws off that planning, chaos followed by a slow recovery can insue. Most reasonable passengers can look out the window and see the weather and understand why there is a delay or cancellation. Even when the weather is at the destination a quick search of a weather app can reassure passengers their frustration is caused by mother nature. However, sometimes a byproduct of these events are aircraft and crew “getting out of sequence”.

Every flight needs an aircraft and crew but these are not unlimited resources. When a series of flights are planned for a crew there must be adequate layovers for the crew to rest. In Canada there is a legal limit to how long pilots can be at work and the minimum amount of rest needed between shifts. Additionally, pilots and flight attendants are obligated to remove themselves if they become fatigued or ill. So, if an aircraft breaks down or gets stuck in weather, or if the crew become fatigued or stuck in weather, it can affect a whole series of flights.

For example, let’s say a crew of four is scheduled to fly from Halifax to Toronto. In Toronto the crew will change to a new aircraft and fly to Montreal and another crew will take the Halifax to Toronto aircraft on to Boston. If the aircraft and the crew get stuck in Halifax for weather there is no aircraft to go to Boston and no crew to go to Montreal. This has a ripple effect that can last for days. This is a simple example, but imagine this on a much larger scale with hundreds of flights being affected by weather. As these delays get longer the issue of the crew needing rest begins to affect even more flights.

Most airlines do prepare for situations where an aircraft or crew are not available. There are reserve staff and aircraft ready to go. But during major weather events, these reserves can be quickly eaten up, plus a spare crew is no use in Toronto if they are needed in Halifax.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

A common complaint from passengers when they are delayed for aircraft or crew is “why can’t you have more airplanes” or “why can’t you call in another pilot?” Well, beyond the incredible planning it takes to have crew and aircraft in the right place at the right time, rested and ready to go, it is not always possible to have extra aircraft and crew ready. The nature of modern-day air travel is it’s affordable. That means airlines must be as efficient as possible to get customers and also make some profit. Airline margins are extremely small, especially in Canada, so any extra cost can make air travel more expensive. Airlines must manage the level of service customers expect balanced with an efficient operation. If you think about it, if money was no factor for you with air travel you could hire a private jet. It would cost you significantly more than a seat on an airplane, but it would provide you with incredible service and schedule. Unfortunately, as most of us can not afford private jets we must endure some minor frustration in return for a safe, cheap ticket.

Photo credit: Photo by Matthew Smith on Unsplash

 

What the flow! Why is my flight delayed?

If you are a regular traveler to Canada’s biggest and busiest airports you are likely familiar with a couple dreaded terms, flow, ground delay program and the worst one of all, ground stop.

So what do they mean? Well, as frustrating as these delays are, they are there to keep Canada’s air traffic organized and most importantly safe.

Flow

Let’s start with flow. As the name implies flow is a method air traffic control (ATC) uses to control the timing of aircraft arriving in busy airspace. There are only so many aircraft air traffic controllers and the physical airspace can handle. This can change based on staffing levels, weather and runways available. To prevent too many aircraft arriving at the same time ATC institutes flow control. Without flow aircraft would have to hold (circle around) until the airspace can accept them. Holding is not efficient and is frustrating for passengers and crew. When an aircraft no longer has enough fuel to hold it will have to divert to an alternate airport making passengers wait even longer.

When a flow program is introduced the pilots must estimate when their aircraft would be ready to take off. ATC will then determine the best time to depart to avoid holding at the destination. Sometimes this can be a 10 or 20-minute delay, sometimes it can be hours. It all depends on the situation ATC is dealing with.

Some busy Canadian airports consistently have flow programs in place, but normally during good weather days, the flow program only creates minor delays during peak times.

Ground Delay Program (GDP)

The intention of a ground delay program in Canada is similar to flow as a means to prevent airports with reduced capacity having to hold or divert aircraft. This can be for various reasons, but the weather is normally the culprit. Thunderstorms in the summer and snow/ice storms in the winter can significantly reduce airport capacity. If an airport can normally accept 50 arrivals per hour and that is reduced to 25, GDP is started. In this case, airlines will work with ATC to negotiate a share of the arrival slots.

So, if an airline normally has 25 arrivals in an hour reduced to 10, some hard decisions have to be made. Airlines can delay flights until a slot is available or cancel. A lot of variables have to be looked at including passenger connections and crew/aircraft positioning. Once the airlines have made their decisions a departure time is assigned to a flight. Unfortunately, GDP delays tend to be much longer than flow and there is always a chance GDP will change based on changing conditions. Plus, if an aircraft misses its departure time it could be a long wait to get a new one.

Ground Stop

When capacity at airports becomes too restricted or weather conditions too significant a ground stop can be initiated. Basically, no aircraft can depart to an airport with a ground stop. Ground stops may only include certain geographic areas or aircraft types depending on the situation. There is normally a time associated with a ground stop. For example, a ground stop may be initiated for half an hour. At the end of the half hour, the ground stop may be extended or terminated. Ground stops typically lead to GDP depending on the situation.

Photo credit: Photo by Anete Lūsiņa on Unsplash

Canada’s pilot fatigue rules are changing… maybe

The following is my own opinion and may not represent the opinion of my employer.

On February 12, 2009, at around 10:20 PM a Dash 8 Q400 operated by the regional airline Colgan Air for Continental Airlines crashed near Clarance Center, New York killing all 49 passengers and crew, plus one person on the ground. The investigation that followed identified many causes, but there was one area that made a big impact on US aviation laws – fatigue. Continue reading Canada’s pilot fatigue rules are changing… maybe

Expecting the unexpected on a stable approach

Stable approach is an important topic in the industry. Unstable approaches are statistically associated as a factor in approach and landing accidents. Pilots are being taught to plan and fly stable approaches. Different companies have different procedures, but by establishing a plan of action and keeping the aircraft within an acceptable performance window will help maintain a stable approach and safe landing. Continue reading Expecting the unexpected on a stable approach

Pilot Incapacitation

 

The Australian Safety Bureau has published an interesting report on Pilot Incapacitation from data collected between 2010 and 2014. The data included incidents reported in Australia and on Australian registered aircraft.

Pilot incapacitation is when a pilot is unable to continue their duties due to a medical related issue or a change in the working environment. This can range from full incapacitation, being unable to perform any duties, to partial incapacitation where a pilot is able to perform limited duties. Continue reading Pilot Incapacitation