An Airline Dispatcher’s View on Why Ground Delays Happen (Guest Post)

We’ve got a special guest post today from someone who is an aircraft dispatcher for a major US airline. This person wrote in to me after my interview with Kate Hanni with an enlightening piece on lengthy ground delays that I thought would be of interest to everyone here. Here is his take on things . . .

If folks want the systemic, “big picture” view of why the new 3-hour limit is such a BAD idea, they need go no further than an airline’s central dispatch office, or any air traffic control facility, and chat with the actual working dispatchers and air traffic controllers, respectively, who are the front-line troops in the annual weather war.

Dispatch is an airline’s “Mission Control” center, and I’ve worked in one as a dispatcher for upwards of 30 years. A flight crew might operate 3-5 flights per day, but the average dispatcher works ten times that many flights in a single shift, and has a more-detailed awareness and understanding of the various problem areas within the airline’s route system. The dispatcher is also the one that plans the flight, including the routes, the alternates, and the fuel load, and is also the one passing along updated info to the crew while enroute. When weather hits, we’re also the ones that divert flights, and sometimes, if need be, we also cancel them.

There are two separate and distinct problems with delays, yet Ms. Hanni and her band of followers don’t seem to be able to discern the critical differences between them. In the last decade or so, there have been a handful of scenarios that produced 7+ hour delays, including, of course, the thunderstorms that caused Ms. Hanni’s American flight to be diverted to Austin. Admittedly, all the above situations were intolerable and handled poorly, and these are the “apples” when it comes to the issue of ground delays.

With respect to the delay Ms. Hanni suffered, I captured an image of the radar that night, and there was a big low pressure system anchored over west Texas resulting in a lengthy line of thunderstorms oriented north-to-south in central Texas. I’m sure Ms. Hanni and her ilk probably think a thunderstorm is a thunderstorm, but there are many variables associated with them that vary the net operational impact, such as coverage (Isolated? Scattered? Broken? Solid line?); movement; trend; tops (Permitting aircraft to fly over them, or not); and the potential for the weather to “train” over the same location on the ground. The cells in that line of thunderstorms in Texas the night of Ms. Hanni’s flight moved south-to-north and kept DFW in the weather much longer than had this been the more typical line of thunderstorms one sees with an approaching cold front which quickly moves W-E or NW-SE.

I’ve already mentioned the rare “apples” of the ground delay issues. The “oranges” are the much more common 2-4 hour delays one sees when thunderstorms impact major airports or regions, especially on the east coast. Ms. Hanni’s “solution” to the “apples” problem is NOT going to solve the “oranges” problem, yet I think the majority of Ms. Hanni’s success with her movement has been the ability to tap into the general public’s mistaken notions that ALL delays are equally evil no matter how short the duration; that EVERY operational situation is predictable by the airline with 100% accuracy; and that ANYTIME anything goes wrong it’s the automatic fault of the airline. There is no one-size-fits all solution here. Let’s look at some common-sense tests, assumptions, misassumptions, and observations:

  • The general public can relate to the fact that their cross-town car trip will take 1x time in good weather and with dry roads, 2x time if it’s raining, and maybe 3x time if there’s snow or ice. Is it such a stretch to conclude that aircraft are similarly slowed down in such conditions?
  • Does it make sense that airlines enjoy delays, or perhaps are they just forced to tolerate them, since (last time I looked) the airlines have no control over the weather? Nobody at an airline “likes” delays, but we realize that a good many of them are the unfortunate cost of doing business within the current ATC system. (The “oranges”, not the “apples.”)
  • Likewise, does it make sense that airlines have the ability (at 11:07am) to predict with absolute certainty that a thunderstorm (or fog, or whatever) will impact XYZ airport at 5:23pm, or 6:03pm, or 7:16pm? Once bad weather starts occurring, will it end 1:23 from now, or 2:10 from now, or 3:33 from now?
  • The concept of airspace capacity constraints is a foreign one to the general public, as they look up at all that sky and assume (incorrectly) that it has unlimited capacity. All that open sky, and there’s no room for my one flight? Again, that’s an individual flight perspective, and one that ignores systemic issues.
  • As far as “just returning to a gate” and “just getting some portable stairs and buses” go, where can airlines (and airports) find the magic wands needed conjure up these extra resources (and additional gates) when needed on short notice? Should every airport have double the number of gates normally used “just in case” problems occur? Should Phoenix have the same number of snow plows that Anchorage does? What’s reasonable for an airport to have?
  • Airport capacity is a variable commodity, and not a constant one. Look at the San Francisco airport acceptance rate (AAR) chart, for example. Notice that the AAR (a per hour figure) can vary greatly depending upon what runway(s) are, or are not in use. AAR is the “supply” and the flights that airlines (and non-airlines) fly into the airport are the “demand”. When demand is less than supply, things are good, but when the weather such as surface winds, cloud ceilings, visibilities change (often suddenly, despite forecasts) and drive a change to the runways in use that involve a drop in the AAR, demand then exceeds supply, and delays ensue. Some flights in the air will need to circle, and may even have to divert. Some flights that haven’t departed (still on a gate, or on a taxiway awaiting departure) will be delayed (think metered freeway on ramp here).
SFO Arrival Rate

  • If a thunderstorm event precludes aircraft from landing at XYZ airport for 2 hours, and XYZ normally handles 50 flights per hour, that’s 100 flights that are going to be affected, and they don’t just all disappear. Some will be able to hold and get in, others will hold and divert to alternates. Of those flights diverting, some will cancel, and some will refuel and try and go back to XYZ. Once the weather improves at XYZ, ATC will be working a backlog of traffic—things don’t immediately snap back to normal once the weather clears out.
  • If airline schedules are restricted such to always be able to fall within an airport’s worst-case AAR, you’ll be “solving” a problem that maybe occurs 20% of the time and unnecessarily restricting things during the 80% of the time when it’s not warranted.
  • If we say it’s foggy at XYZ and you tell the customer service agent the weather is OK at Aunt Tilly’s house nearby, that’s nice, but it’s only relevant if we’re shooting approaches to Aunt Tilly’s house and landing in her driveway. It’s the weather at the airport that counts. (You’d be genuinely surprised at how often this comes up.)
  • One hears a great deal about “NextGen” ATC stuff, and while it will help in some operational contexts, it won’t in many others such as runway capacity. Also, if one is trying to get from LaGuardia to O’Hare and there’s a solid line of thunderstorms from Toronto to Atlanta topping 50,000 feet, it matters not whether the flight is navigating using VORs, GPS, Boy Scout compass, or taxiing on Interstate 80–you’re NOT going to get through the weather, and there will be delays.
  • Please keep in mind that airline employees are not all interchangeable. Customer contact personnel don’t have detailed knowledge of the specifics of ATC delays, only that there are ATC delays. Likewise, many pilots only have their viewpoint of their specific flight, and not much awareness of any systemic issues. It’s no different than walking into a hospital. It’s unreasonable to expect detailed surgical questions to be answered by anyone other than by a surgeon—an admissions clerk won’t do–and it’s unreasonable to expect that clerk to be trained to answer surgical questions.

In closing, I’ll reiterate that nothing that I’ve written should be construed as acceptance of the delay that Ms. Hanni and others experienced in that handful of really lengthy delay situations. Irrespective of however well-meaning her efforts might have been, her pushing of a one-size-fits-all solution is going to end up being severely counter-productive. By DOT’s new 3-hour rule and the huge fines the airlines are now facing, it is the height of financial irresponsibility (if not insanity) for any airline to risk allowing EACH aircraft that busts the 3-hour limit to incur a multi-million dollar fine. Pre-emptive cancellations will occur earlier than the 3-hour mark, so as to ensure aircraft can get through any taxiway gridlock and get back to the gate before the bell does “ding” at 3 hours.

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