In 15 plus years and well more than 11,000 thousand hours of airline flying, I have seen my share of cancelled flights. It hasn’t been many, and most of them have been for mechanical issues. A few have been for weather, and even those are usually based on the forecast, since that is what our flight planning is based on.
I can probably count on one hand the number of flights that were outright cancelled because of you-don’t-want-to-fly-through-that-on-the-way-to-your-desination-weather. Even when weather enroute is severe, the first choice is to fly around it, within reason. In fact, while flights have been cancelled because of weather forecasts, I’ve probably had just as many weather cancellations because my ship did not arrive thanks to weather-related diversions.
If I had to guess a percentage of my flights that have cancelled, it’s probably well under 2 percent. Still, for someone that has flown more than 10,000 flights, that’s 200 potential cancellations. Most of those are predictable. The company—and make no mistake, they make the ultimate decision, though the pilot in command can drive the decision—has cancelled for items such as broken fuel valves, malfunctioning starters, flat tires, cracked windshields, or landing gear that won’t retract. For most items, the airplane can be ferried under a ferry permit to a point of repair. I’m here to tell you that flying a jet with the gear down and locked sounds like you’re riding a freight train.
But there have been a few that sound so ridiculous that it’s hard to believe the problem isn’t made up. The most unusual one is a broken cargo door, specifically one that won’t open. This rarely happens, and fortunately, when it does, it’s usually when the bin is already empty. On the CRJ, it is possible to access the bin by disassembling a portion of the aft bulkhead, but it is a time-consuming process and one that is not entered into (sorry about the pun) lightly. But even that may not make the door work. All it does is allow someone to (finally) empty the bags that are back there.
There is not necessarily a safety issue with this, but no airline—not even Spirit—is going to try operate by not taking bags. Passengers would rightfully go out of their minds, and by the end of the day, Congress would be writing a Don’t Forget Our Bags Bill. It would be a customer service and logistical nightmare. Further, on some aircraft, like the CRJ, flying with an empty bin does pose some weight and balance issues. We would not be able to fly full, because the aircraft tends to be nose heavy. You need something in the back. With no bags, we’d be limited in the number of passengers we could carry based on the amount of fuel on board.
Other weird cancellations I’ve had or seen: broken windshield wipers (both the wiper itself, as well as the motor); flooding toilets (a sanitation issue); missing placards (seriously); missing or expired first aid kits; low oxygen pressure for the crew’s emergency oxygen system (this is a real pain, as it cannot be serviced with passengers on board because of the explosive properties of pressurized oxygen, especially during transfer); and airports that have run out of fuel or deicing fluid.
Non-mechanical situations crop up as well. Pilots and flight attendants have had to come off of a trip unexpectedly for illness or family emergencies. Both have happened to me. Crew members occasionally time-out for their work day, sometimes per a collective bargaining agreement, and sometimes per the federal aviation regulations. In both instances, you have a tired person you don’t want flying your flight. Most of these are for unexpected weather events that lead to delays that lead to cancellations. The Passenger Bill of Rights law also causes a lot of preemptive cancellations. There have been stories in the news of airlines having to cancel flights because of intoxicated pilots or flight attendants (or both). Fortunately, none of those has involved my company.
But even humans can be part of the you-cancelled-for-WHAT equation: Crews have been in accidents in hotel vans with injuries; I know of one that was mugged; one pilot had his company credentials and part of his uniform stolen from his hotel room; ground personnel have been known to use the emergency lights to light the cabin during overnight servicing–and left the lights on and burned out the batteries, thus cancelling the morning flight they tried so hard to ensure would be ready to go on time.
One of our crews, years ago, had to call in sick as a group from severe food poisoning received from a local restaurant. They had eaten different entrees, but all had the salad, and all paid the price. A first officer who came to us from another regional had a story of a captain who quit on the spot at an outstation, walking off the airplane and out to the front of the airport, where his wife was waiting for him. On the yoke was a note he left while the FO was doing the walk-around: I QUIT.
But at least he’s alive to talk about it. Other crew members have died on overnights or on the flight deck. For some things, there is simply no back-up plan, certainly not one that is cost justifiable. Some of these stories are wild, but I’ll spare you the details out of respect for their families.
But having to explain that you can’t open a door…or that a sticker is missing…or that you can’t go to Canada because the passport of one of the pilots was stolen…or because the airport printer doesn’t work…sometimes you’re just better off making up something that sounds believable.—Chip Wright