When it Snows…..

November 2, 2011 by Bruce Landsberg

It is awe-inspiring the things we can do with aircraft.  Although it happens thousands of times a day, the airlines fly people to their destinations more or less on time with luggage usually arriving coincidentally or only a day later. When we think of the logistics involved of moving flights around the country and the ground handling infrastructure needed to support the airlines, it really is amazing.

However, due to the extreme efficiency of the airlines, or perhaps not, when a snow storm fouls the Northeast—not an unknown occurrence—it all falls apart. The news of a Jet Blue flight stranded on a the ramp at Bradley last week  is something from another world – not one of the more advanced countries on the planet. It’s similar to being trapped on an escalator!

I’ve often had delays in GA related to winter weather since the aircraft I usually fly don’t do ice and heavy snow is something best avoided. There is much to be learned from this situation. First, all the airlines flights going to Newark had enough fuel to get to an alternate – something that some GA pilots haven’t quite figured out even going to the primary airport. ATC did an excellent job of coping with the influx into Bradley and everyone got down safely.

It will be illuminating to see how “Blue” management and the airport deal with the fact that it collectively took them seven hours to figure out how to get people off a parked aircraft.  Built-in boarding ladders aren’t just a good idea if a Jetway is the only way to get off.  I even vaguely remember when every airport had portable stairs – before the era of the bridge.  Maybe a lifeboat system would work. It’s the basis for a great Seinfeld episode.

The airlines are stuck with going where and when they say they’re going – it’s the basis of their business. In GA we have the flexibility of NOT going with the herd and when things start to get  ugly – don’t go there! Last year, I had my worst airline delay in a decade, when after giving a safety program at the University of North Dakota, the airline system took two days to recover from a wind event. (Get used to that as the political season heats up.)  There are plenty of places one might prefer to get stranded but the distractions were minimal and the people are friendly.

In most cases disruptive weather moves off in 3 or 8 hours . GA can fly but the airlines have equipment hubbed and spoked everywhere and it can take a long time to reconfigure especially as the number of available seats declines. Airports share responsibility for imprisonment debacles and really need to figure out how to deal with international flights when Customs isn’t immediately available.  It just doesn’t seem that difficult but then I clearly don’t understand.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • McGowan

    Mr Landsburg:
    The Jetblue stranding comprises 2 parts. Curing the problem as it exists, and discovering how the system got to it’s current situation.
    As it exists, the Airlines are at fault since they choose to file alternates as nearby as legally possible, despite the fact that they have no support at the alternate airport, thereby allowing them to carry the minimum fuel weight and saving overall fuel burn. Unless they are required to file an alternate at which they have their own gates, this situation will reoccur.
    Currently, Airlines are dependant on the Jetbridge. This developed, I believe, because Airlines really do not want passengers to know that they are on an aircraft; walking outside and seeing the aircraft from the outside drives this realization home. Taxing up to a ramp area and using mobile airstairs would allow the greatest flexibility and least expense and complexity- but would require manpower. Jobs. And no airline wants to have even 1 more worker than absolutely necessary.
    So lay the blame at the feet of all Airlines- they have created a system that is designed to work only when all factors are 100%. How often does that exist in aviation?
    Thanks, W McGowan, 767 FO Major Airline BOS

  • Chris

    Mr McGowan makes excellent points. I hate the phrase, “there ought to be a law…”, so it pains me to write this. But would it be THAT expensive or onerous to require that larger airports have minimal equipment on hand to move passengers from an aircraft to the terminal? I’m talking about one operable, mobile airstair and at least one qualified operator on hand at all times (note that this person may easily have other, primary duties). Aside from customs issues on international flights, am I missing something here? This simply should not happen.

  • David Adams

    An airstair? People actually on the ground on the ramp? Just think of all the heart attacks you are creating at TSA!

  • David Adams

    An airstair? People actually on the ground on the ramp? Just think of all the heart attacks you just created at TSA!

  • Doug

    Declare an emergency. Fire trucks have ladders. lol

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Thank you all ! Great comments. Common sense doesn’t seem to be as common as it once was , not just related to the airline business – which sometimes is an oxymoron.

  • R.R.Hall

    Next time they can deploy the slides and get everyone off. I am really surprised that nowhere on the airport was a set of stairs that could be used. Even the president often departs via stairs instead of a jetway.

  • Gary Stegall

    RRHall, airslides in a bona-fide non-emergency would undoubededly result in injuries. Then come the lawsuites. What’s the problem with adjustable-height roll-around stairs to evacuate passengers? I’d rather be soaking wet and cold than be stuck inside a cabin for 7 hours. It’s a no-brainer to me.