This is Part One of a three-part post about a single flight from Eagle, Colorado, to Newark, New Jersey, with an unscheduled stop in Albany, New York. Parts two and three will appear in the coming weeks.—Ed.
I was recently working a trip that involved some bad weather at the destination. Further, because we were departing a geographically challenging airport (Eagle County Regional [EGE]), which is a high-elevation airport with a mountain at one end, we were limited in the amount of fuel we could carry so that we could maximize our payload. When the aircraft started holding for Newark, we were severely limited in the amount of time that we could spin circles in the sky.
Our scheduled alternate was Albany International (ALB), just a few minutes north of Newark Liberty International (EWR). However, our hold was on an arrival that begins closer to Cleveland. At this point on a flight, the perspective of the crew and the company often begins to diverge. When the weather is down and airlines know that diversions are likely, they need to be fairly strategic in choosing alternates. Otherwise, crews will all race for the same couple of airports. For instance, at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport (ATL) in Atlanta, the closest and often the “best” is Lovell Field (CHA) in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Unfortunately, CHA quickly gets overwhelmed, and it takes far longer than it should to get the airplanes refueled and on their way. Crews like CHA because its close proximity means they can hold longer, thus improving their chances for getting into ATL on the first try.
My company has been using a “scatter plan” in which computer software tries to selectively spread out the diversions so as to avoid overwhelming one or two airports while minimizing the risk of a diversion (and minimizing the turn time when a diversion occurs). Other factors may include selecting a diversion that also happens to be the final destination for a number of connecting passengers.
Scatter plans aren’t without problems. First, the weather needs to cooperate. Second, so does the crew. In our case, ALB was a legal alternate, but the weather wasn’t very good. It was right at legal minimums. We started collecting ATIS reports for Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Rochester, Buffalo, and Syracuse. Several had either great visibility with a low ceiling, and some had a poor selection of both (in the Part 121 world, visibility is all that matters). When we contacted the company about Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT), the best option, we were told that the ramp was full. Getting to ALB also meant flying through the worst of the weather.
This brings up another issue: crew legality. The company also needs to take into account which crew members may run into duty time issues. One of our flight attendants had started so early in the morning that she didn’t have a lot of time with which to work. Second, I was on my sixth day of flying, so an abnormally long delay in PIT—a very good possibility—was going to strand me as well. Further, the airplane would be stuck until they could bring in another first officer, because I would not legally be able to fly the next day.
As we began studying the weather, we pushed for a change in the alternate. The ALB weather was dropping, as was our fuel load. But there were not a lot of options. Finally, our dispatcher, who had a much bigger picture than we did, sent us to ALB. So, off we went. Could we get in, and how long would we be there?—Chip Wright