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.


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

  1. Ted says:

    Well done, Mr. or Ms. guest poster. This is one of the most logical description of the issue that I have seen. If only logic was something Ms. Hanni or the government was interested in…

  2. E.J. says:

    Great job by the writer and great job Brett! No one more qualified to tackle this issue then a professional Flight Dispatcher.

  3. Miles says:

    The writer dismisses the idea of an airport buying some extra portable stairs and buses, which would actually be a trivial expense, in order to rescue people from planes stuck on the tarmac.

    Had s/he been aboard that aircraft sitting on the ground in Austin for 7 hours, with no toilets, no water, no food, crying babies…I imagine this essay would have advocated the dismissal of airline staff responsible (including the dispatchers) and fining the airlines themselves.

    • BW says:

      Firing the dispatcher for the Austin incident? Was he/she supposed to leave their office in Dallas, drive to Austin, commandeer a bus and a set of airstairs, and take them out to the airplane to rescue the passengers?

      I doubt the dispatcher of Ms. Hanni’s flight was just kicking back with a cigar and having a good laugh about the whole thing, but there’s a limit to what can be done from an operations center.

    • frank says:

      Written by Miles on March 31, 2010. Reply The writer dismisses the idea of an airport buying some extra portable stairs and buses, which would actually be a trivial expense, in order to rescue people from planes stuck on the tarmac.
      ====================================================

      Trivial expense? Care to tell us what the cost would be for an airport the size of JFK? Maintanence costs? Where to store them?
      Miss Hanni’s flight endured THUNDERSTORMS. No one is allowed on the ramp during lightning activity. Jetblue’s incident at JFK, the ramp was iced over. I doubt buses would run in those conditions. Northwest in the 90’s. It was a blizzard. Same difficult conditions.

  4. MeanMeosh says:

    Miles – if you observe closely, the writer says “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.” I think it’s safe to interpret that he found the Austin situation unacceptable, and that it and the people involved should have been dealt with appropriately.

    And as for those portable stairs, that’s nice and all, but what do you plan to do in REALLY bad conditions where ramp workers can’t even get the stairs or buses to the plane safely? Sorry to say, but training t-storms like the ones in December 2006 happen on occasion down here in Texas – no way you’re getting ramp workers out with metal stairs until you’re darn well sure that they’ll have enough time to get everyone out and the equipment put away before the next wave rolls in. The problem with a one-size-fits-all law like this is that it can’t possibly account for extreme events like this.

  5. I think the writer is taking this personally, as if the presumption is that all delays are dispatcher’s fault. The rules must be there to force airlines to deal with the rare, but inevitable strandings caused by diversions and other irregular ops for which they have been caught entirely unprepared.

    His point seems to be that irregular ops due to weather are inevitable and are out of the control of dispatchers. Fine point, however as someone who has been a commercial pilot, I know that operating manuals account for all sorts of the most unlikely in-flight weather and mechanical contingencies. On the other hand, if the plane is on the ground, the airlines again and again have proven themselves incapable of dealing with irregular operations from the most basic customer service standpoint that it has become a safety issue. Airlines have been overwhelmed when diversions happen and they throw up their hands as if it has never happened before, and will never happen again. It is one thing when you are sleeping in an airport overnight and the airline absolves itself due to weather, but it is quite another when they seem to have no way to get you off the plane.

    When an airplane crashes, we don’t say, “Well, it was an unusually large storm, there is nothing we can do, it’s not like we can design a plane to handle every possible storm.” We need to start treating ground delays with just a fraction of the contingency planning we regularly apply to in-flight operations. That means adding contingency plans to an airline and airport’s operation’s manuals, and yes, even a few portable stair cases perhaps. Gates and stairs could be shared when there is a diversion. We all know this rule won’t change the weather, but if it forces airlines and airports have a plan for treating passengers humanely during weather delays and diversions, it may be a good rule.

    • BW says:

      Jason..

      “Gates and stairs could be shared when there is a diversion.”

      Do you have any more specific thoughts on this? What do you do at LGA when departures are stuck for hours while arrivals continue. The arrivals take all the gates and there’s nothing left to share. You rescue everyone stuck on the taxiway and return them to a terminal that now has at least twice as many people as it’s designed for. Then what happens? Those folks stand in a 4-hour long line waiting to be rebooked (because there are only so many customer service agents).. probably next to a window that affords them a view of the plane they just left taking off……..

      • If you are in the terminal, you can leave. When this happens to me, I go home or go to a hotel and try to rebook over the phone or just try again tomorrow. By definition, anyone stuck on an airplane would rater be in a terminal. That the terminal would be too crowded is a terrible reason not to deplane passengers.

        I t think any reasonable contingency plan would not allow an airport to accept more flights than they had the capacity to accommodate. We had this last week in Denver when aircraft couldn’t depart due to icing building up on aircraft post-de-ice, pre departure. There was ground stop so aircraft weren’t stranded at DIA in a snowstorm without a gate. That’s why it didn’t make national news. It’s not that complicated, but you do have to plan for it.

        • BW says:

          I’m sorry, if someone is stuck at LGA trying to get home to Richmond, VA or Charleston, WV they’re not going to just leave. And go where? To a ridiculously expensive hotel?

          Snow at DEN and thunderstorms impacting LGA are, to steal from the original author, apples and oranges. What does it mean to say airports shouldn’t be allowed to ‘accept more flights than they had the capacity to accommodate’? Does that mean if there are thunderstorms forecast over the departure gates for LGA that arrivals should be ground stopped as well? You’d have to base that decision on a forecast, as by the time the thunderstorms actually do show up it’s too late. What if the thunderstorms never materialize? Or if they don’t affect the departure gates after all? Then you’ve ruined thousands of people’s trips in an effort to avoid the 1/100th of 1% of flights that end up delayed more than 3 hours.

          Making broad sweeping rules and grand declarations of the way things ought to be just doesn’t work.

          • TW says:

            “I’m sorry, if someone is stuck at LGA trying to get home to Richmond, VA or Charleston, WV they’re not going to just leave. And go where? To a ridiculously expensive hotel?”

            Not a valid point. I’d rather sleep in the airport and use the restroom in an airport, than sit indefinitely on a plane with no other options.

            Also, it’s really not so far-fetched that an airport might provide stairs. Don’t have them? Buy more, share, who cares, but it’s not impossible to sort the issue out. Afraid of using metal stairs in a storm? Look into other materials. Again, not out of the realm of possibility here. If airports are seriously looking into their budgets to allow for things like expensive body scanners, that are only somewhat effective btw, seems like a staircase or several wouldn’t be all that difficult to produce. There’s just no justifiable reason to keep passengers stewing in a plane. I mean, really now. C’mon.

        • Rich says:

          Jason,
          You say that an airport should not be able to accept more flights than they can accommodate? I assume you mean on the ground and not the air? Many times that airport is needed for a diverted flight that may not have been able to land at its original destination (i.e The Austin incident). That particular airport may be the closest alternate with suitable weather. So that aircraft is now very close to its minimum fuel. I think you would agree that it is safer to let the plane land than let it become a smokin’ hole in the ground because people might inconvenienced for a few hours?

          As far as getting stairs and buses up to stranded aircraft. That also becomes an airport issue. Airlines pay their rent and landing fees to the airport. Airport authorities are usually in charge of space and equipment. So it is not necessarily always an airline issue to get passengers off the plane. Often it is the airport itself. I think if the airport doesn’t provide these services, then they should be fined as well.

        • David Z says:

          but if it forces airlines and airports have a plan for treating passengers humanely during weather delays and diversions, it may be a good rule.

          Which then makes sense for the airline to cancel the flight before that happens, don’t you think?

  6. Tim says:

    This guy is such a great writer and so forceful!

  7. Mat says:

    OK lets take this argument from another direction since the “its unreasonable for an airline to hold people hostage for 3 hours” doesn’t seem to be getting through.

    Why is it reasonable that companies who’s core competency is transportation should hold passengers hostage for 3 hours without movement? If you can’t get a plane in the air or back at the gate in 3 hours then in a world where the strong survive you need to be fined out of business. The weak will get culled, the strong will survive.

  8. Dan says:

    While the writer makes some valid points, I hate to say it, but he doesn’t actually discredit Ms. Hanni and her work. The way I figure it, if the experience of Ms. Hanni is so rare, and the airlines already have mechanisms in place to avoid these sorts of things, then the rule is a non-issue.

    I’m also still waiting for some interpretative clarification on the rule. The rule is littered with the use of the word “tarmac” which unfortunately has no official definition, and was not defined in the rule itself. Absolutely nobody familiar with aviation operations would *ever* say that an aircraft on an active taxiway is on any sort of tarmac at all. In fact, the only usage of the term is in the vernacular — and in the media at that. So, I really do think that an aircraft on a taxi-way, making steady (albeit slow) progress towards the runway, is not subject to the “tarmac” clock.

    • CF says:

      My understanding is that the clock goes into effect when the door closes and then stops when the wheels get off the ground. On landing, wheels down starts the clock and then the door opening stops it. Taxiways are absolutely included. So while the number of flights that have had crazy long delays is small, this will impact flights starting at 2 hours in, and that’s a bigger number.

  9. mike says:

    I believe he is making a good point. but its one side of the story, I have been flying out of wash Dulles (IAD) to various New York airports every mon-thu week in & out and always it’s been the same story If I fly Jetblue I usually reach on time back home but if it either delta (delta connection) or United (Express) I am guaranteed a 30+ min delay and this is on a good day.

    My personal experience is that mainline airlines flying their regional’s really do not care about passenger service even though they could make a real effort to change it.

  10. I like what the writer said as it gives an insiders view. Until you do a job you have no idea what that job entails in the day to day world. Having worked for an airline, I always got a chuckle out of listening to people who ‘knew’ all about the airline biz, but never worked for one. It’s that way with every job, people who don’t do that job always think they know about that job.

    I think if people like Ms. Hanni were to spend a week at an airline during bad winter weather or summer thunder storms they would find out really fast it’s not easy to do what they ‘think’ should be done. You can plan a wonderful dinner in your mind, but it doesn’t mean you know how to cook.

  11. What the dispatcher *didn’t* do here is talk about how delays are handled. As a passenger, we often get the impression that the priorities the airline uses to decide how a delay will be handled don’t take into consideration the people on the plane and thus decisions that lead to 7 hours on a plane actually make sense to the dispatcher. When you look at just statistics — how many people are making connections, what’s the plane’s load factor, crew time — all metrics that are about the airline’s bottom line, decisions can be made that are gruesome from the perspective of the passenger. It’s precisely because the airline industry has shown reckless disregard for its customers for so long that we feel legislation is necessary to protect our rights. When the typical response of an airline during a period of crisis is to give us bad information or no information, don’t act surprised when your customers revolt and demand responses. The airline industry has brought this response upon themselves. They could have fixed this any number of ways, any number of times and now to argue “you just don’t know how it really works”…well, whose problem is it that I, who have flown over 3 million miles, don’t know how it works. I had a situation the other week where I was supposed to fly JetBlue at 10 am out of JFK. After posting 5 different delays, and then being assured by a manager that this flight was not going to be cancelled, they cancelled the flight. Further, they gave no information about available options, instead making passengers wait on a line. At some point, I called my travel agent and made my own alternate arrangements…which involved a cab ride to Newark. Do I know why our flight was cancelled when so many other made it out on-time or with fewer delays? Nope. You give us no information and wrong information. In a climate like that, is it any surprise that accountability is demanded. You brought this on yourself.

    • BW says:

      If you think a dispatcher is looking at connections, loads, and crew time to come up with some mystical determination that a 7 hour delay ‘makes sense’ then you are sadly, sadly mistaken.

      If I’m not fully understanding your point here please correct me.

      “They could have fixed this any number of ways, any number of times…”

      How about some specifics? How could airlines have fixed ‘this’? Honestly, you make it sound like airline employees all work for Air Schadenfreude and are just waiting for the next opportunity to make people miserable.

    • >>>What the dispatcher *didn’t* do here is talk about how delays are handled.

      And that’s because the precise mechanics of which are a local station issue, and outside my personal area of expertise. (See previous article note re: “interchangeable airline employees.”

      >>>As a passenger, we often get the impression that the priorities the airline uses to decide how a delay will be handled don’t take into consideration the people on the plane and thus decisions that lead to 7 hours on a plane actually make sense to the dispatcher.

      I’m hard pressed to come-up with *any* operation scenarios where 7 hours actually makes sense to *anyone*, let alone a dispatcher…

      >>>When you look at just statistics — how many people are making connections, what’s the plane’s load factor, crew time — all metrics that are about the airline’s bottom line, decisions can be made that are gruesome from the perspective of the passenger.

      We look at many variables, including the ones you mention, but we always try to keep the inconvenience down to the smallest number of passengers possible. That said, it’s also a matter of personal (and, yes, sometimes an emotional) perspective of the passenger. Let’s say the last ATL-ORD flight of the night just had the aircraft go out of service with a maintenance issue. The aircraft can’t be fixed quickly, and there no other scheduled flights (on any airline) to get the 50 ATL-ORD folks home. But wait, the airline also has a MCO-ORD flight already in the air, and he’s got 60 empty seats and is just 70 miles south of ATL. Solution? We drop the MCO-ORD flight into ATL so as to “rescue” the 50 ATL-ORD passengers that would have been stranded. All that done, there will be at least some MCO-ORD passengers miffed at having been delayed for the unscheduled stop in ATL, but there’d also be some ATL-ORD passengers that would be tickled pink about another flight having swooped in to rescue them. My point is that the wisdom of some operational decisions is purely in the eye of the beholder.

      >>>It’s precisely because the airline industry has shown reckless disregard for its customers for so long that we feel legislation is necessary to protect our rights.

      >>>When the typical response of an airline during a period of crisis is to give us bad information or no information, don’t act surprised when your customers revolt and demand responses.

      >>>The airline industry has brought this response upon themselves. They could have fixed this any number of ways, any number of times and now to argue “you just don’t know how it really works”…well, whose problem is it that I, who have flown over 3 million miles, don’t know how it works.

      With all due respect, that’s three million miles sitting in a passenger seat (and the airlines are grateful for that patronage), but your perspective might be different if you had an equivalent amount of seat time with a dispatcher, or even an airline pilot.

      >>>I had a situation the other week where I was supposed to fly JetBlue at 10 am out of JFK. After posting 5 different delays, and then being assured by a manager that this flight was not going to be cancelled, they cancelled the flight.

      If this JFK event you refer to was within the last couple of weeks (when JFK and other airports in the northeast) had strong (60+ knot) surface winds for most of the day, the delays were quite understandable. Forecasts aside, exactly how were the various airlines involved supposed to “know” when the winds would actually subside (to being within limits) without having to check every so often? When they didn’t subside, how long were they supposed to wait before throwing in the towel (nobody knows when they’ll subside) and cancel the flight?

    • Mr 3 million mile flyer don’t get down on the manager as at the time they spoke to you the flight might have still be scheduled to operate as far as he/she knew at that time. Sadly in any business the front line people are the last to find out anything since they don’t make the final discissions and do they best they can with the info they have. I don’t think they want to spend their day giving out wrong info just so they can be yelled at all day.

      You said, “They could have fixed this any number of ways, any number of times and now to argue “you just don’t know how it really works”…well, whose problem is it that I, who have flown over 3 million miles, don’t know how it works. ” So what are all these number of ways they could have fixed this? I’m sure the airlines, the airports and Washington would love to know.

  12. At the risk of repeating myself (from my original post that CF was kind enough to publish), ground delays are an “apples” and “oranges” affair, and there’s a tendency to fixate on one to the complete exclusion of the other—something that the new 3-hour limit will also do.

    Nobody, least of all yours truly, is in any way arguing that sitting on an aircraft for 7+ hours as Ms. Hanni did is in any way acceptable or desirable. Likewise for those who went through the past blizzards at DTW and JFK, or the MSP-bound flight that diverted to RST. It’s easy for folks to understand a 3-hour limit in the context of these types of rare event—not rare weather-wise, but rare in the sense that they entailed actual 7+ hour delays for passengers stuck on aircraft—but let’s look at another application of a 3-hour rule, and one that doesn’t involve diverted flights.

    You’re on an ORD-PHL flight, and it pushes back on-time at 0650. During the taxi-out, PHL’s airport acceptance rate (AAR) drops from 48 to 32 to due to unforecasted changes in PHL weather/winds, and ATC at 0700 issues a ground stop for all PHL-destined traffic not yet airborne and an update time of an hour from now. From 0700-0800, we don’t know (absolutely) what ATC is going to do at 0800. ATC could extend the ground stop for another 30 or 60 minutes, or cancel the ground stop and let flights depart, or cancel the ground stop but transition into a ground delay programs where each PHL-bound flight gets a specific EDCT (or “wheels-up” time) telling them when they can takeoff. OK, so at 0800, ATC extends the ground stop until 0830. Between 0800-0830, we don’t know what they’ll do at 0830. At 0830, ATC cancels the ground stop, but implements a ground delay program that gives your ORD-PHL flight a wheels-up time of 0905. That’ll be 2:15 since the aircraft originally pushed back, and it leaves you about :45 to get airborne before the proverbial 3-hour egg-timer sounds off. If you’re lucky (i.e., Mother Nature smiles favorably upon your flight), you’ll get airborne at 0905, but what happens if thunderstorms form over South Bend, IN (GIP), an area that your flight has to transit to get from ORD-PHL? If that ATC departure gate closes due to weather, there will be additional delays taken while ATC tries to get weather re-routes coordinated with adjacent ATC facilities. Say that takes :25 or so to do—that’s 2:40 since pushback, and you only have 20 minutes left to get airborne. Then a thunderstorm starts overhead ORD itself, so more delays. Which would be better overall for the passengers, to do a gate return, or perhaps get airborne a little later at 1000 or 1015, once the ORD weather improved?

    As I said before, the 3-hour rule will help mitigate the “apples” types of diversion-related delay events, but in the context of the “oranges” events, it’s going to really hobble operations in ways that passengers can’t begin to fathom—and won’t—until thunderstorm season arrives. Ask any other dispatcher out there about the ORD-PHL scenario I described, and you’ll hear countless similar ones—dispatchers know the start-stop nature of things once weather, ATC, and the gazillion other variables (the ones that passengers aren’t aware of) rear their ugly heads.

    To Mr. Steele, your assessment that the dispatcher is somehow taking this personally as if the weather/delays are his fault isn’t really the case at all. It’s nice that you’re a commercial pilot, but as DavidSFeastbay notes in his post, until one has walked a mile in our shoes, you are (with all due respect) not fully cognizant of the difference in perspectives and all the internal data we have on which we base decisions upon. If anything, that’s one thing that other dispatchers I’ve spoken with have marveled at—that so many folks are coming up with seemingly simple “solutions” that are limited by their “outsider” perspectives and occasional departures from reality. With similar due respect to Ms. Hanni, I spent 6 hours trapped in a freeway traffic jam one time, but that experience didn’t suddenly qualify me as a highway engineer.

    In closing, consider this well-known parable, and its clear adaptability to the ground delay issues and the new 3-hour limit: (..and I’m talking about the “oranges” here, folks..)

    A little bird was flying south for the winter. It got so cold it froze up and fell to the ground in a large field. While it was lying there, a cow came by and dropped some manure on it. As it lay there in the pile of manure, it began to realize how warm it was. The manure was actually thawing him out! He lay there all warm and happy, and soon began to sing for joy. A passing cat heard the little bird singing, and came to investigate. Following the sound, the cat discovered the bird under the pile of manure, and promptly dug him out–and then ate him.
    The morals of the story are:

    1. Not everyone who drops manure on you is your enemy.

    2. Not everyone who digs you out of a pile of manure is your friend.

    3. When you’re warm and safe, even if it’s in the manure, it can be better to keep quiet, since one doesn’t know what else is out there.

  13. Steve says:

    Excuse me, but am I missing something very basic?

    No one seems to be focused in on HOW to prevent ground delays.

    Airports within close proximity are clustered in areas of bad weather and are major hubs in major metropolitan areas. Yes, I mean YOU Northeast. Can anyone really expect that the WAY over scheduled New York Metro airports (BOS, LGA, JFK, EWR, and PHL) will really stand a chance in Hades of operating without significant delays? Oh yes, and throw in BADLY designed airports with intersecting runways, and you have a plan for disaster delays. MHT, PVD, HPN and the way underutilized ISP (which would reap untold rewards with easy rapid transit to Manhattan) are better bets. HPN is however, one of the worst designed airports in the world. Comfort is zip. Last time I was there I didn’t even see any jet bridges.

    Why would ANY airline in its right mind actually HUB out of these airports. The domino effects are horrendous on a regular basis. Continental, US Airways, and JetBlue are major offenders here. But no one is guiltless, especially whose who attempt to operate shuttle service of some sort.

    Other large metro airports are in areas that suffer really bad weather. ORD (UA and AA hub) or ATL (AT, DL) slow when just a few drops of rain fall or snow or low ceilings or wind. IAH (CO) is basically shut down in the summer with the frequent thunder and lightening storms that pass through.

    DEN can suffer in both seasons though the design of the airport seems to mitigate some of this unless it is snowing so hard that the runways cannot be kept clear (UA hub).

    So there seems to be a pattern:

    1. Over scheduled airports.
    2. Too many high volume airports close together that all suffer bad weather at the same time.
    3. Airlines that hub out of multiple airports at risk, some at the same time, resulting in domino delays throughout the system either because of equipment delays or flight crew delays (your crew is stuck at LGA).

    How can anyone really NOT expect this to happen?

    Now… we all have our opinion on how to avoid these delays, but everyone is so busy complaining and analyzing to ascertain if the action or rules are correct that no one seems to focus on the short term solutions (limit slots and enforce them or better rail service), or the long term solutions (move hubs to weather friendly airports). In this respect, DL’s choice of SLC was brilliant. Yes, its overscheduled but its a good airport with good arrival and departure separation, and great weather, even in winter. PHX is pretty good unless your tires melt on the tarmac in the summer.

    DFW is another very large airport that seems to be relatively unscathed by weather unless its severe and then it would not matter where the airport is.

    We are all savvy fliers and we all know that no one really enjoys the possibility of connecting on CO through EWR, or on AA or UA through ORD. We are season aware if we are connecting though ATL on DL/AT or IAH on CO.

    Maybe someone can start some action to resolve the problem. Or shall we just accept that we can do nothing except sit in planes on tarmacs for hours or sit in airports for hours?

    It is apparent that airlines HAVE been in some anticipatory delays into the schedule. When weather is great, you actually arrive EARLY, sometimes by as much as 30 minutes.

    It reminds me of the episode of Seinfeld when Kramer was betting a Texas man on arrival and departures at an airline club at LGA.

    • CF says:

      “Why would ANY airline in its right mind actually HUB out of these airports”

      “. . . long term solutions (move hubs to weather friendly airports). In this respect, DL’s choice of SLC was brilliant. Yes, its overscheduled but its a good airport with good arrival and departure separation, and great weather, even in winter. PHX is pretty good unless your tires melt on the tarmac in the summer.”

      There are hubs at these airports because that’s where the people are. You can’t just build a hub in the middle of nowhere. Airline hub economics require healthy local traffic to be able to make money. So if you stick a hub out in the middle of nowhere, it will fail every time.

      I think you’re overstating the overscheduling problem. Denver isn’t overscheduled and Houston is hardly “basically shut down” during the summer.

      If you think overscheduling is a problem, then how would you divide slots? At San Francisco, for example, would you only permit 25 flights per hour because that’s the lowest arrival rate possible? What happens on the clear days when you can fly 60? If you cut it to 25, fares will skyrocket and there will be a ton of waste airspace.

      Hopefully technology will get us to a point where we can reduce the variability in arrival rates, but physical location and weather will always cause problems. There’s no perfect solution.

  14. Evan says:

    The Dispatcher brings up some great points and I agree with the main thesis and thank him/her for sharing that wise perspective, but there are two parts I take issue with:

    1) At certain airports (e.g. EWR), the demand on the runways exceeds even the optimum capacity for certain times during the day. This can lead to ground delays even when the weather is relatively good (a simple wind direction change can cause major delays, for example). So while no airline or airport should schedule for the 20% day, they should not be allowed to schedule for the 120% day either. Airlines themselves set block time based on the distribution of flight times in the past, somewhere around the 8th or 9th decile, Not the 1st or 2nd decile (which would be the fastest flying times). Why shouldn’t the same logic apply to airport planning?

    2) I take major issue with the notion that many of these delays are not predictable. The Dispatcher throws up his/her hands and claims ignorance, at the mercy of the ATC for that PHL ground stop. They have NO IDEA when ATC might release that flight.

    Has anyone done analysis on this? Has anyone used years of historical operational data to inform these decisions, help airlines and passengers better manage their flights and travel days?

    There’s a lot of research on it in academia, and airlines are supposedly part of that. Yet we’re hearing from the source that they have no way of knowing.

    I started FlightCaster (www.flightcaster.com) to help the passenger know, because the airline sure wasn’t doing a good job of telling us. We use 10-years of flight data, machine learning algorithms, and cloud-based computing, to inform the traveler what’s really going on — it’s a work in progress, but we’re already easily beating the airlines at their own game of providing data to travelers. Perhaps I should be talking to the airlines to help them out!

    (Brett: My apologies for the marketing here, thought it was particularly relevant to this discussion!)

    • Dan says:

      Evan,

      I spent some time in an airline hub operations center — not dispatch, but the “nerve center” for how the airline manages its hub. The people in my office would speak to people at “The Dispatcher”‘s office, and we’d disseminate information into the reservation system (the “official” departure times) and the gates. We managed the gates. At my airline, only dispatch had the ability to code a cancellation message into the reservation system — IOW, officially cancel a flight.

      One of the very real problems with what you are trying to do is that the airline has to provide real and accurate information for every single flight. It’s one thing for you to say that based on all of the fancy shmancy calculations, Flight X has an 80% chance of being delayed 30 minutes and 50% chance of being delayed 60 minute. Further, you say in your FAQ that you can’t handle situations where the airline does something “weird”. Although the airline has more information than you do in that regard, when it comes to weather (the next thing in your list of why you screw up too) the airlines really don’t.

      The next thing you have to consider is what can really be done with the information that you think the airlines can do better with. Exactly what do you do when you figure the flight has a 73% chance of a delay greater than 60 minutes? I still don’t know that answer. In your FAQ, you say you don’t spend much emphasis on departure delays because you don’t want the passengers to miss their flight — well, neither do the airlines. Yet, for an airline, getting the flight out is the largest part of the battle.

      You focus your efforts on arrival delays… well, in my isolated corner of the airline universe, they were of no concern to me. My concern was what to do with any aircraft at precisely the moment it landed, not the deviation from its arrival time. (And since my airline was purely a domestic airline, the arrival city for the flight made no difference to me… all I cared about was what it was going to do *next*. Furthermore, arrival times are just estimates anyway — look at the distributions some time.)

      We still go back to the question of what do you do with the probabilities once you’ve generated them. Any sort of forecasting is going to have error in it. If you tell passengers there is an X% chance of a delay exceeding Y minutes, you will have some passengers that you’ve unnecessarily inconvenienced, because the delay never materialized — which is the problem with the 3-hour rule. Then, you also have the issue of determining what your thresholds (as an airline) for “doing anything” are going to be.

      Further, once you’ve established those thresholds, what do you actually do? You say to start using FlightCaster “4 to 6 hours before your flight” and that you want to consider other options, such as “earlier flights, non-stop flights, or flights on other airlines.” Well, in practice, many destinations aren’t served more than a handful of times per day. (At my airline, the bulk of our destinations were served 4x daily.) Non-stop flights? Well, maybe there are certain city pairs where there are connections and non-stops on the same airline, but I doubt they’re that common — for instance, on UA, I can think of about a half-dozen out of the 45 or so cities that UA serves out of IAD where one would reasonably book a connection when a non-stop is available. Have you done an analysis on that? Have you looked at itineraries people actually book, the popularity of them, and actual flight schedules? You *can* look at city-pair data. Say you pull UA’s info on IAD-LAS. If 95% of the traffic on that route was on the non-stop flight, you’d find that only 5% of the connections might benefit from knowing about an earlier non-stop.

      And a rebook on a different airline? Likely only in a maintenance situation, and those are what you refer to as the “weird” things that happen at an airline that your algorithms can’t detect. And things like that? The airline can’t predict it either.

      So I suspect, in the end, the reason the airlines haven’t focused much on this is that even if they did have the data, the uses are limited.

      • Evan says:

        Dan –

        Thanks for the thoughtful response. You hit on exactly some of my main points. Namely that with just publicly available information (e.g. weather, congestion calculations, etc.) we CAN provide more data to the traveler than the airline does today.

        Because of uncertainty with those factors as well as other factors we don’t know about (e.g. maintenance, crew, etc.) we can’t be certain. However, if we were to work with airlines, we could be even more accurate and useful to them and their passengers.

        Re how useful the data is: I used to commute weekly all over the country, I know first-hand how to avoid delays by changing routes, airlines, etc. I’ve also done analysis on it: With 4 hours advanced notice, your options are exponentially increased (in one study, 4 hours advanced notice gave me options to arrive close to on-time for 94% of O&D routes out of ORD on a thunderstormy afternoon, not even including substitute airports like LGA or JFK, etc.)

        Re airlines, I’m not sure as much not having the experience that you do! But if the dispatcher is claiming he has no idea how long the ground stop will last, why not at least try to see if analytics can help give an idea? Wouldn’t that help him figure out if he should cancel the flight? Or at least communicate that likelihood to the pilot and passengers so they know?

        People expect lots of changing information and uncertainty when they fly — the hard part for the traveling public is that there is SO MUCH that can be known today that could help elucidate certain things, but aren’t communicated — I challenge airlines to use that for their operational benefit, and ALSO for travelers. And we can help do that.

        I’d love to speak more — please e-mail me at evan@flightcaster.com if you’d be interested in chatting.

  15. Miles says:

    I would like to hear from The Dispatcher (and anyone else) what solution s/he would think is appropriate.

    The previous system was unlimited hours on the ground, no penalties.
    The new law is >3 hours siting on the ground, big penalties.

    So, can a consensus be arrived at?

    • In addition to making meaningful and successful improvements to the ATC system, one of the things that could really help the situation in many cases would be some degree of passengers recalibrating their expectations with various operational realities.

      * There’s a thunderstorm on top of the airport, the viz is 1/4 mile, and the winds are 30 knots gusting to 40—is it reasonable to expect flights in or out of the airport to be operating routinely and on-time?

      * You’re scheduled on an eastbound transcon, which is late due to the inbound aircraft from the east coast fighting a 200-knot jetstream headwind. Isn’t it reasonable to expect the outbound flight back east to be delayed in departing? On the bright side, all that extra tailwind just might have you home at the originally scheduled time.

      * If there’s a solid line of thunderstorms across the Great Plains, flights will be taking some lengthy re-routes (detours) to get around them. Isn’t it reasonable to expect the flight to take longer than it would on a day with no weather?

      My point here is that everything is done for a good reason, but that the particular “good reason” might not be readily apparent to passengers.

    • CF says:

      Miles – The previous system was certainly not a “no penalties” system. Just ask ExpressJet and friends when they got fined heavily for the debacle in Rochester. I think that’s the right system. Individually evaluating the extremes and fining for them will be fare more effective.

      • Miles says:

        The Rochester incident is described thus: “The plane reached Rochester around 12:30 a.m. and passengers were stranded until 6:15 a.m., when they were allowed into the terminal.”

        According to http://www.kttc.com/Global/story.asp?S=11564958, the “heavy fine” was a mere $100,000 against CO / ExpressJet and $75,000 against Mesaba. That’s chump change, and who knows if the DOT ever actually collected it?

        Were there any fines for the other incidents, including the Austin one that your original posting referenced? Not that I heard of. Anybody disciplined? Not that the public knows about.

        Before the new law, when a carrier stuck some pax on the tarmac for hours their flacks could just mouth some soothing words about how sorry they were. Rinse and repeat as necessary. Not any more.

        I hope this new law will lead to whatever reforms are needed to avoid this type of thing from happening again.

        • CF says:

          It hasn’t been collected yet, because it’s still in progress. This is the same type of thing that we’ll see with this new rule – it’s not a flat amount per passengers. It’ll end up being a negotiation. You don’t think $100,000 is a big fine? That’s 50 seats on that plane, so $2,000 a person. That’s a pretty sizable amount, I think. When you add in all the negative press, it adds up to more than that.

          The point is, this is a better way to handle it rather than having a blanket rule that will have too many unintended consequences.

  16. Tim says:

    Why are people referring to The Dispatcher as “him/her”? CF clearly said, “Here is his take on things . . .” Please don’t be rude!

  17. SirWired says:

    The law does NOT require cancellation or returning to the gate at the three hour limit! It requires the airlines to work with the local stations to figure out a way to get pax who want to get off a way to get off. It also requires that the plane not turn into a prison in the meantime. This is not an unreasonable request, although it most certainly will require a bit of work and coordination with the FAA (who writes taxiway rules), airlines, and airports.

    A supplementary rule (under the discretion of the FAA) allowing airlines to leave the actual taxiway queue in order to offload pax without having the plane lose its place in line would help.

  18. DXer says:

    From one dispatcher to another: Thank you for putting into words what so many of us in this profession want the average passenger to know.

    Great work!

    • Thanks…

      There’s an old saying that goes “Never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by stupidity”, and although I don’t think there’s any stupidity involved (others may well differ), I think the saying works equally well if one replaces “stupidity” with “things that are outside of one’s normal area of expertise.” That said, it doesn’t seem to stop folks from pushing suggestions that’ll exacerbate the problems…

  19. JayB says:

    To the Dispatcher, A very well written narrative of various issues causing delays. I certainly appreciated it.

    Many of us are nothing more than customers, folks who have experienced a singular “flight from Hell,” or are stuck with what we regard as a “chronic” delay problem. My personal experience has been that the airline industry has gotten worse over the years in its ability to communicate with its customers about the delays and to explain that what is being done, or was done, is the best that could have been expected.

    I can appreciate the problems you describe. Maybe the airline people I talk with when I fly simply don’t know what’s going on or maybe they simply aren’t empowered to do anything to make the situation better. Maybe, as my Mother says, “That’s what happens when things get too big,” as if she or we know what is “too big.”

    So, we’ve complained to the airlines and, to our eyes, things have only gotten worse. So, we’ve gotten the government’s attention and the airlines don’t like the regulations put out. The airlines have warned us, in fact, flat out predicted of the increasing number of flight cancellations. We fully expect every cancellation will be listed as: “just following government regulations.”

    So be it, but we will be watching. Will one airline have fewer cancellations than their competitors or will everyone have the same? Should be interesting to see and we can only hope we and you get to comment fully on the situation. Maybe things will get better and we won’t need these government regulations. Here’s hoping.

  20. Jason H says:

    A couple of posts have asked where the solution might be and why the “dispatcher” didn’t offer his own. I think it goes back to a comment he made in his post that no one knows all sides of the story. A real solution would involve multiple parties working together outside of the political, emotional, and financial axes that are so often ground when this discussion starts.

    ATC:
    I think we all agree that we need a new ATC system. The current one is hopelessly out of date and only now are there some moves to correct some glaring problems (only recently did they put in new relays to deal with intra-mountain flying here in Colorado), but NexGen alone can’t solve the problem.

    Airports:
    Airports need to be ready for large unexpected (or expected) events. I think some airports have done a better job than others. DEN has done very well with its design, runway alignment, procedures, and communication, but again airports can’t solve the problem on their own.

    Airlines:
    Airlines exists for one reason, to make money, and to suggest that they should reduce their flying during certain seasons or change their concentration in an airport departure/arrival block ignores the fact that they are trying to make money AND they are in competition. Unless and until the airlines are allowed to make a group decision (“I will reduce my departures by 6 in the 8am block if you keep your departures the same”) there is NO incentive for them to make changes. Further, changes are in some way dictated by their customers who desire to arrive at a particular time at their destination.

    Aircraft Manufacturers:
    Seems an odd one, but they have a role to play too. Better efficiency and capacity allow airlines to serve their markets with a smarter compliment of aircraft.

    Passengers:
    Passengers book the peak time tickets at the major airports during any season they choose because they want to travel at those times to those airports. Additionally when new service comes into an airport it is up to passengers to fly that route on that carrier. So many times I hear how people hate flying on a 50-seat RJ, but when an airline tries to fly a larger plane people just don’t book the flight. Where is the incentive for the airline to keep flying a 737/A319/E-175?

    In the end it comes down to money. We (the traveling public) have to be willing to pay for the service we want. That doesn’t just mean airfare, but also in airport taxes and fees and in sales and property taxes that go to improving the airports and ATC system. People talk all day about how great other countries and airlines are, but the big name ones often have government backing and strong restrictions on competition. The US doesn’t, but we pay for that with a reduced ability to quickly expand and improve our aviation system.

    • >>>A couple of posts have asked where the solution might be and why the “dispatcher” didn’t offer his own.

      Patience please, I do spend time away from the PC… ;)

      Rather than re-invent the wheel here, I’d like to suggest you take a look at two other blogs where ATC modernization has been discussed.

      http://gettheflick.blogspot.com/

      Over the last three days (3/29-3/31), the above blog has a chronological history of ATC modernization efforts, and it’s a real eye opener. Look for “Saving ERAM”…

      http://www.aviationplanning.com/

      Mike Boyd has written tons of stuff on FAA modernization efforts, and how the lack thereof has led us into the current situation.

      If you get the idea that “NextGen” is just re-packaging of previous modernization efforts that never came completely to fruition, you could be on to something…

      >>>In the end it comes down to money. We (the traveling public) have to be willing to pay for the service we want.

      Could be that you’ve *already* paid for it, at least once, maybe more.

      Check out the above sites…

  21. Donald says:

    Cranky, Way to go, hearing from the professionals is the way to go! How about from an Airport Manager of a large multi airline airport next? They can explain about why the airport is where it is (Just finished the Naked Airport, good coverage of the history of LGA and JFK. My father visited LGA as a child and we walked the sand dunes of Idewild aka JFK). Why there aren’t extra gates or airstairs for those bad days. Or how you can tie your future to an airline and wake up one morning and find it moved on without you.

    • CF says:

      I’ll see if I can find an airport manager who is willing to talk about it. That’s a tougher one, however, because it’s harder to be anonymous when you’re dealing with a specific airport. And many of the decisions aren’t the airport’s to make so to get the full story, we’d need to have have anonymity. Anyone want to volunteer? You know where to find me.

  22. stan says:

    i find the tone and attitude of this post condescending and unpleasant. glad to see that i can add dispatchers to the list of people that are so embittered by their jobs that they can’t muster any sympathy for the customers that they allegedly serve.

    lame attitude. lame post.

  23. greg says:

    Whan many of you are forgetting, is that life is can be boiled down to mathemtaical formulas and statistical certainties.

    Airlines/ATC, etc… use years worth of data to forecast (ticket prices, weather, delays). They can calculate accurately 99% of the time. But it’s the other 1% that rowl the public. Are airlines and airport supposed to spend tens of millions for that one day a year?

    I frequently fly out of Atlanta, ATL has very little de-icing equipment. For good reason, we don’t expeience icing like ORD. But when it happens, ATL suffers thousands of cancelled flights (like this year). So I, as a resident of Atlanta, want to see my taxes go up big time for the couple of days a year of bad icing?

    In economics, we study marginalsim. Atlanta could add millions of dollars of de-icing equpment and plows, but how would that money not be better spent of something that would increase operations on most days 98% of days, or on those three days when we get bad weather? Put another way, would you rather see delay at ATL reduced on 363 days a year, or would you prefer delays to be like normal on those two bad days?

    How many flight operations occur each year? How many make the news? I’m going to lay a bet that less than a two dozen flight’s a year make national news because of delays. That’s what percentage of total flights? How many Greyhound trips or Amtrak trips experience similar delays? Yeah, it sucks to be on the Tarmac for eight hours, but it still beats how long the same trip would take on Amtrak (without delays).

    People, airlines cannot possible cover every situation to everyone’s approval. Sh-t happens.

  24. Jim says:

    I’d like to be sympathetic to The Dispatcher … but he lost me on his first analogy.

    “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?”

    Sure, I can understand that. But when I’m in a cross-town car trip, *I* am the one in control of the trip. I can choose to ride out the trip, turn around and stay home, pull over and wait by the side of the road, divert to a rest stop and wait there, and so on — all dependent on my needs and the needs of my passengers. When I get into an aircraft, and the door closes, I have none of those options; those decisions are made by someone else, without my knowledge, advice, or consent. Is it any wonder I get cranky?

    The airlines had plenty of opportunity to come up with a way of handling these situations without the DOT stepping in … and they didn’t do so. When my kids are fighting and won’t solve their problem by themselves, I step in. Usually, nobody likes the result, but the problem gets solved, period.

    Don’t like the DOT rule? Convince DOT to change it. I mean, we’re not talking about an amendment to the US Constitution. DOT can make a new rule anytime it wants. (Well, mostly, but it’s certainly a quicker process than getting a law passed, for example.) If the airlines have a better way of handling such things, then by all means let’s hear it.

    DOT’s actions make it clear that the status quo ain’t gonna cut it anymore; any repeal of this rule will have to be accompanied by the adoption of a “better” rule. And maybe that’s the point. The airlines didn’t have any incentive to fix the problems for either the apples or the oranges. Now, they have considerable incentive to fix it for both.

    • One can only take the analogy so far–I mean, cars can’t fly either.

      The intended point was that any vehicular movement (car on road, aircraft on airport runways, taxiways, and ramp areas) can be, and is slowed by weather. When it occurs, nobody should really be surprised.

      • Jim says:

        Sure, nobody’s surprised when weather delays happen. @#$! happens.

        What’s more surprising is that weather delays happen all the time — and rather than hearing that the airlines are coming up with better ways to manage resources during weather delays, we hear more stories about 7-hour tarmac confinements. (Well, at least until the DOT rule was enacted.)

        Insanity is doing things the same way you’ve always done them and expecting the results to be different.

        • >>>we hear more stories about 7-hour tarmac confinements.

          Reminds me of the old joke about winning $1,000,000 in the lottery, payable at $1 a year for a million years… ;)

          Just something to chew on, but are there *really* all that many 7-hour delays with passengers trapped onboard, or do we just hear the isolated ones reported over and over again? Not trying to marginalize the experience anyone would have in such a case, just wondering (aloud) if saturation coverage (many outlets, many broadcasts) helps create the perception that 7-hour delays are so rampant such that they occur every day–which they don’t, of course.

          • Jim says:

            Terrorist events involving aircraft don’t happen all that often, either. That hasn’t stopped us from spending billions of dollars every year to make sure that nobody brings a four-ounce tube of toothpaste aboard an aircraft.

    • CF says:

      “But when I’m in a cross-town car trip, *I* am the one in control of the trip.”

      That may be true if you’re the only one in the car, but what if you’re in a carpool going to work and there are four of you in there? Maybe two people want to turn back and the other two want to wait it out because they have a big project that needs to be done. Now assume there are 150 people in your car, can you really ask them all what they want to do? No, you can’t. You just need to make the decision and hope it ends up being the best one for the most people.

      Now, if you’re on that runway, the airline may realize that the pilots may time out if they have to return to the gate. Oh, and there are no free seats for four days on other flights. So what do you do?

      • Jim says:

        I think the “no free seats” argument is a red herring. That flight that just got canceled? Guess what. The aircraft is still sitting there, and eventually it’s gonna have to move on to its next destination in order to be positioned properly for the next flight. Not to mention the flight crew. There doesn’t seem to be any reason not to fill the plane with the passengers who’d like to go to their next stop.

        And yes, if I’m driving in a carpool, I’ve got a bad decision to make. But sitting on the on-ramp to the freeway for seven hours, hoping that the weather breaks eventually, usually isn’t considered a good option.

        • CF says:

          Ah, if only it were that simple. That may be the case in an “outstation” where the plane needs to get back into the hub, but for an airline like Delta at JFK or US Airways in Philadelphia, that’s not what happens. For those airlines, the airplane is most likely going out to a spoke and then coming right back. If the flight out cancels, then the return will be canceled as well, inconveniencing a whole different set of people. Then the airplane will still be in place for its next flight a few hours later.

      • Ron says:

        I was once on a Greyhound traveling from Baltimore to Philadelphia the Sunday after Thanksgiving. After crawling on I-95 for 2 or 3 hours, with a struggling air conditioner that could barely deal with the overpacked bus (every seat was taken plus a few children), the driver finally pulled into a strip mall in Delaware and told the passengers to get off and come back in half an hour. Everybody cheered.

        The point is, a bus has the option of pulling over, even if it takes 30 minutes or more to get to the nearest exit. A plane on the ground can’t just pull over — it needs a gate or stairs, and airport staff to get the people off the plane and into a safe place. Sometimes the situation inside a vehicle becomes intolerable, and the driver/captain needs to have the authority and ability to get people off as soon as possible, regardless of any systemic impacts this may have. A fixed clock is probably the wrong approach, because the clock can’t tell you what the condition is inside the airplane. But neither can a person at some operations center weighing the inconvenience of the many against the few — they don’t necessarily know how bad the situation is inside the stranded plane.

  25. >>>i find the tone and attitude of this post condescending and unpleasant. glad to see that i can add dispatchers to the list of people that are so embittered by their jobs that they can’t muster any sympathy for the customers that they allegedly serve

    I’m really sorry that you feel that way, but I can’t help but notice that you’ve just negatively labeled about 2,000 dispatchers in the USA based on the comments of single one of them. Between that, and that you feel the need to keep a “list”, the *dispatchers* are the ones supposedly embittered?

    There is also no “allegedly”, as the dispatcher does serve both internal and external customers. We also travel as passengers, and when we experience irregular ops from that perspective ourselves, we indeed not only have sympathy, but a solid understanding of the hows and whys of the situation. I don’t like sitting onboard either, but that understanding level helps, and I just wish more people had some of it.

    • Another Dispatcher says:

      Amen brother… The post you quoted bothered me too. I have often said a terrible day in the airline business beats a good day selling insurance hands down. I think the fact that so many of us stay in the industry for decades enduring uncertainty, downsizing, bankruptcy, pay cuts, mergers, relocation, etc speaks to our love of the job.

      I take the welfare of the passengers on my flights very seriously. Their safety is my primary concern but delivering the product my company sold them is also important. It’s very frustrating to be accused of lack of empathy or even malicious disregard when our best efforts can’t overcome a situation. There are many systemic problems facing the industry today. But believe me when I say the vast majority of airline employees want to get you where you’re going on-time, happy and safe.

      • It’s easy for such accusations to be made, since absent the training and frontline experiences we have, some folks don’t know what else to do.

        I mentioned earlier that many passengers could benefit (and lower their blood pressures) from re-calibrating their expectations with reality. I’m not going to suggest that every perceived “ill” in the industry can be “solved” by this tact, but the guy in the enclosed video clip makes some GREAT points that are readily applicale in many areas….

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-LkusicUL2s

  26. greg says:

    I woulad also add, airlines and ATC have good reason to error on the side of caution. Every flight can land likely land safely, but all it takes is one microburst to cause an accident. Would you rather be delayed or end up like DL191 at DFW in ’85.

    Airlines, knowing our litigous society would rather delay all flights than take a 1 in 1,000,000 chance that that flight might have a catastrophic failure enroute. Better safe than sorry.

    Remeber, in your car, you can oull off the road, that’s not really an option for an airliner.

    • Exactly.

      One thing I hope folks will keep in mind is that there’s no way to quantify an accident that DOESN’T happen. If one follows all rules, regulations, and procedures (which all may also involve delaying flights), you’re much more apt to not be the lead-off story on the evening news…

      I intentionally delayed a flight last week because the intended destination blew their TAF (forecast) and eventually ended up dropping to 1/16th of a mile visibility in blowing dust and winds gusting to 84mph. Did my initiating the delay (until the weather improved) prevent an accident? I have no idea (nor can anyone), but I have no doubt that some of those actually delayed onboard could have easily been thinking “this %#(*@^ airline is messing with me (again)”, not knowing all that’s going on behind the scenes.

      • greg says:

        100% dead on accurate. Maybe 9,999 flights could successfully land without an incident. But it’s that 1 that does have a major incident that causes far worse PR, loss to life and property.

        Ultimately, the captain is fully resposible for the operation of his aircraft, if for any reason he does not feel comfterable with the approach (either diverting in flight, or not leaving to begin with). The responsibility for all on board is his, and his alone. A very heavy burden to shoulder, and better to error on the side of caution. Discretion *is* the better part of valor, even though rarely recognized as such.

        It’s better to arrive late, than to have your obit refer to you as “the late.”

        • >>>The responsibility for all on board is his, and his alone.

          Actually, the dispatcher and pilot-in-command (PIC) share joint responsibility for the safety of the flight…

  27. Childish says:

    Although the public does not understand and doesn’t care about the proposed financial consequences of the 3-hour rule on “airline operations”, the airlines don’t understand and don’t care about the financial consequences of their rules to “my operations”.

    Sure the proposed three-hour rule might be short sighted and will cost the airlines more money and cause them to prematurely reduce service to the detriment of both the airlines and the passengers.

    When I’m buying a ticket, I need to figure out the cost and then how long the trip will take by both plane and car and then decide whether to drive or fly. I have to figure out doorstep to doorstep time if I take the plane.

    Let’s take an example: It normally takes me one hour to get across town to the airport, but there might be traffic or weather so I better figure two hour. Then I need to park and get through security. This normally takes 45 minutes to get to the gate. But the park-and-ride shuttle and security might be slow so I better figure an 1.5 hours. Adding this up, I need to leave three and a half hours before the scheduled flight time. Why, because I need to make sure I account for all the unknowns. If I don’t, the airline might charge me $500 dollars to take the next flight, even if there is room on it. Also, even if the weather is bad, and driving to the airport is treacherous and slow; if my flight takes off on time without me, I’m most likely out the money.

    Could it not be reasoned, if the airline imposed less of a financial penalty for “personal irregular operations”—like delays in getting to the airport and other unknown conditions—that I might be more likely to fly instead of drive or take more flights per year because it takes less time? This might in turn financially benefit both the customer and the airline by increased passenger volume.

    Even though I can hope, I don’t think the airlines’ $150 change fee and the airline’s rules that limit standby are going away any time soon. On the contrary, I don’t think the FAA’s 3-hour delay rule is going away any time soon either.

    Why? I think the underlying argument is that the airlines’ rules screwed up “my operations”, so I’ll use the FAA’s rules to screw up the airlines’ operations.

    It may sound childish—and you may be thinking—is this what it boils down to? Yes.

    • David Z says:

      Such an attitude is arguably understandable, although I don’t know how this can possibly solve flight delays. As mentioned before, the airlines can always cancel (and refund or reschedule) rather than risk paying heavy fines.

      We’re all waiting to hear logical, realistic and “sensible” solutions to somehow fix this.

  28. Hill Rider says:

    All you get from airlines is excuses, excuses, and excuses. Getting trapped in an airplane for >3 hours is inhumane.

    Airline and airline employees, stop coming up with more and more excuses and take ownership of the fact that you were treating people like cattle.

    Should we remind you of the people who overnighted in a crowded RJ 50 feet from the terminal? Yes, there were lots of excuses made that time too.

  29. Kathy says:

    It’s such a complex problem, and I truly do appreciate TheDispatcher’s point of view. It was very interesting to me, and the explanations were fascinating. I worked at an airline, in the front of the house (reservations), and never knew much about the operational side of things.

    It seems to me alot of this is a failure to communicate properly with the traveling public. Just from your explanation, I understand a great deal more than I did before. Wouldn’t a lot of the frustration and anger be mitigated with simple straightforward explanations such as TheDispatcher has given?

    A simple announcement of “Hey folks, there is a line of storms on our flight path and since we don’t want to be flung around the sky, we’re going to wait. There is a chance we can leave at 800am, we’ll get an update at 730, and if we can’t leave at 800am, this is what our options are:” type of thing. If people KNEW about the complexities involved, I think they wouldn’t have had so many years of built up anger, and that is definitely due to the way the airlines (including the one I worked at years ago) handled things. So they are paying for it now from what I can see, because of this lack of communication. That , plus some poor decisions on highly publized ordeals, ensure that things are going to very interesting (and not in a good way) during the summer storm season.

    It will be interesting to see what happens, and I’m glad I don’t work at an airline anymore.

    • >>>Wouldn’t a lot of the frustration and anger be mitigated with simple straightforward explanations such as TheDispatcher has given?

      I think providing such better-detailed answers could indeed help the situation, but doing so has its own set of problems. The training material has to be developed and all the affected personnel have to be scheduled through it, all of which is additional cost for the airline. While some passengers might welcome the info, there will be at least some folks that are still just going to “write-off” the detailed info as more mumbo-jumbo from te excuse-making airline (and we’ve seen some of that in this very thread).

      The simpliest thing to do would be to have passengers “trust us” when it comes to info, i.e. we’re doing things for a valid reason, but trust is a fleeting commodity in many areas of today’s society.

  30. clinkapdx says:

    May 19, 2010: What a relief to read a sensible response to the three-hour limit. The proposed fines for carriers at NY airports is ridiculous. How can safety come first with such a rule?

  31. WFG Bass says:

    The dispatcher makes sense and writes very well. I am, however, reluctant to adopt an attitude of “trust us” when such a large bureaucracy is involved. When delays occur, or baggage is lost, or flights are canceled, the contact we, the traveling public, have is with people who have neither the authority nor the responsibility to correct a problem. They simply pass the bad news on to us, and in most, if not all situations, they are powerless to help. That puts us at their mercy. It’s the fault of “the system” we are told. My experience in airports, particularly with security and baggage handling, has rarely been pleasant. Perhaps our expectations are too high, but bureaucracies don’t have a good track record of doing things that make sense.

    The best idea, if you want to change the system very quickly is simply this: don’t fly in an airplane. Drive. Take the train. Stay at home. Flying is not a right. The airlines and the dispatchers and operations folks have the right to conduct their business as they see fit. I have the right to stay on the ground. It’s a win-win for everyone don’t you think? I am not inconvenienced, and nobody from the airline has to listen to me complain. Win-win. Aah, . . . . well, if you forget the idea that I didn’t provide of the important revenue stream the airlines need to stay in business. Empty airplane seats will cause something to change.

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  33. HT says:

    In response to:

    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?

    Is there any legitimate reason why an empty plane needs to stay parked at a gate, while there are still occupied planes languishing out on the tarmac, approaching the 6th and 7th hour, if not longer?

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