Delays and Tar pits

November 3, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg
Delays are a fact in aviation life. Last week’s near hurricane in the upper Midwest made for an interesting trip to Grand Forks, ND (GFK) and back. Ironically, I was presenting a safety seminar on Real World IFR and it doesn’t get much more realistic than last week’s weather. While I always prefer to fly GA, under those extreme conditions it seemed better to leave this to those with the right tools. The outbound airline flight from Minneapolis (MSP) to GFK was canceled with refugees packed into every remaining flight.  The Delta Connection Skywest crew was extremely professional and deplaned two passengers after determining that about 400 pounds more fuel was needed to reach a suitable alternate in this massive storm system. The 90 degree crosswind landing at GFK was likely close to the limits of the RJ and a thing of beauty.

In the safety business we typically focus on the negative and forget that tens of thousands of flights operate successfully in all kinds of weather. The regional airlines are collectively taking a lot of heat because of the Colgan accident. No question that some things need to be fixed but the system, as a whole, works well. No corners were cut this day.

My return the following day from GFK was fraught with delay as flight after flight canceled largely because MSP had only one runway that was within wind limits. I’m wondering how NextGen is going to improve major weather delays like this? Concrete becomes the limiting factor –  not the ability to wedge a extra few aircraft closer to one another with more precise navigation. When the big hubs go down the wheel comes off the wagon and remains that way for at least a day or so. GA may be slow relative to jets but we don’t usually don’t get stuck in the hub tar pits for a day either.That’s what reliever airports are all about and it behooves everyone to protect them.

My options out of GFK ultimately evaporated after 6 hours of trying so it came down to renting a car for a drive and an overnight in Fargo. First flight out the next morning sounded good. You know what’s coming! More delays although the storm was long gone and creaming the Canadian Maritimes.

The inbound RJ that was to be the escape vehicle back to MSP whacked some birds on the way in and was taken out of service for inspection. The savior was an old Northwest Airlines DC9 that was sent to liberate us. Bondo and doubler plates were in much evidence on the airframe and the only glass in the cockpit was in the captain’s spectacles but the old bird did the job with grace.

This episode reminded me that way too many GA pilots come to grief by pushing on. The professionals have procedures and minimums. Rules are followed and options discussed. Weather delays cost time and money – it’s a fact of aviation life no matter what you’re flying. Novices push – the pros wait. They may get there late but they get there.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • David Reinhart

    I agree that concrete, not airspace, is the real limiting factor. There needs to be more of a push to get traffic out hubs to other airports in the area. The prime example around here is Worcester Regional Airport (KORH). A towered airport that lost its commercial service after a fancy new terminal was built. Since then there have been several abortive attempts to restore service, none of which have succeeded long-term.

  • Gerard

    I think there are many factors that can lead to delays and concrete acreage is only one of them. On high x-wind days operations at Newark Liberty (KEWR) on 04-22 R & L are limited to only one runway due to their close proximity, in this case it is not so much the square footage of runway as much as the overall design of the airport that is at the root of the issue. Clearly two active runways could provide for more volume than one.

    That being said, probably the number one reason we hear the command to “Line up and Wait” as opposed to “Cleared for takeoff” is to provide for spacing of airborne aircraft, likewise landing aircraft need to maintain airborne spacing. I think there is still room to reduce the amount of time spent on the runway and if NextGen can provide for closer spacing in the air, some of that time spent on the runway could be reduced, thus increasing the volume that can be handled by any one runway.

    Still using KEWR as an example, another significant cause for delay is the volume of traffic caused by the mixing of regional with national and international flights. I would like to see more of the purely regional operations moved to the nearby “regional” airports like Westchester Co (KHPN), MacArthur (KISP), Stewart Intl. (KSWE) and Lehigh Valley Intl. (KABE). In the end it is really about efficiently moving people and cargo as opposed to overall number of flights and locating the regional operations at regional airports would free up space for more heavies at the major hubs. I also think this model would better serves the long term economic interest of all these airports and their communities.

    Just my two cents as both a pilot and airline passenger.