Tarmac Delays

There's been a lot in the news recently about tarmac delays. There have been comments from passengers, lawmakers, airlines' management and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). But there has hardly been any comments from the people that are experiencing these delays with you - your crew, and more specifically the pilots and Captain. Here is that viewpoint.

What causes these tarmac delays? Most of these result from flight arrival delays due to weather. However, and this is where the blame game begins, each flight can have its' own specific reason why it is delayed, how long it is delayed, and what is being done to minimize the inconvenience. We will concentrate on the major reasons why and how these tarmac delays happen.

Most tarmac delays happen in the summer due to thunderstorms and associated potential windshear. Understandably, you can't conduct a safe approach and landing in these conditions and so flights start holding and gate holds become the norm for your particular destination. As explained in Holding , flights will be circling at various points for your destination, hoping to get in. There is no control over the weather, and while you can predict it, the duration and severity of thunderstorms over the airport or on approaches to it, is very unpredictable.

As you have already read in Flight Plan , your Captain and flight dispatcher have taken into account the possibilities of holding due to predicted severe weather. Fuel is added and an alternate airport is planned for possible divert purposes. Alternates are picked because the weather at your destination is predicted to be below 2000 feet (cloud cover) and 3 miles visibility at plus or minus one hour of your scheduled arrival time. Therefore an alternate is required as part of your Flight Plan. Most of the time, an alternate airport is picked for the best weather and is the closest to your destination, and also meets some other criteria for that particular airline, such as navigational aids, sufficient runway length, etc. Unfortunately, support facilities and sufficient personnel to handle possible diverts and tarmac delays are not figured in. This is where the experience of the Captain comes into play. While you can have this alternate listed, it doesn't necessarily mean you have to divert there. Let's say this- if I'm in holding, I will have already thought about the best alternate available in terms of weather, distance from our destination (and fuel required to get there), and ground support for the aircraft and passengers. Experience has taught me that one of my airline's station always handles, and has the experience, to receive diverts better then another station. So if the weather and distance to possible alternates for diverting is more or less equal, then I will always divert to the alternate airport with the best support to handle my flight on the ground.

As we are holding for our destination, all of these things are being figured by your pilots. Communicating with flight dispatch and the potential divert station operations is ongoing. While I might select an excellent station for divert purposes, another question must be - how many aircraft are already diverting there? Can they handle me? As you can see, this is a very fluid situation, starting with how long we can stay in holding, when our destination airport will let us in, and the conditions at our alternate airport.

Let's say we had to divert because our fuel was getting low and weather was persisting over our destination and the airport was closed to all arrivals and departures due to severe weather. We proceed and land at the selected divert airport. After we land, we might be lucky to get a gate. Many times though, a gate is unavailable because they must keep them open for scheduled arriving and departing flights to that destination. These flights need to be attended to first or a huge backlog could start, and a domino effect of more delays would continue.

These are the three items that I tell my passengers that must be completed before we can continue on to our destination. First, our destination airport must open and weather must be good enough to allow flights back in on approaches and landings - this is determined by the air traffic controllers. Sometimes it seems that there is no rhyme or reason why some flights are approved first and others wait. Usually the first flight to divert is the first to be approved. But remember that there can be several other airports that also have diverts that are trying to get into your destination. In addition, later scheduled incoming flights are still arriving to your destination. Air traffic control must resequence all of this traffic back into your destination, possibly still around thunderstorms, which of course cuts down on allowable safe airspace. Also, sometimes the airlines involved have the ability to ask the FAA to give priority to some of their flights over others if they view one flight having more of an impact on future delays or more delayed passengers down the line. For example, a Boeing 767 with 200+ passengers might be given higher priority then a flight (a smaller aircraft in this instance) that was ready sooner, because of more passengers involved and more connections.

The second item is that flight dispatch must issue a new Flight Plan, from our now diverted airport to the destination airport,. All of the required paperwork must be in order and signed for by the Captain. This includes the required fuel to get into your destination, which is the third item. If your flight has diverted to a small airport or has many diverted flights, then waiting for the one or two fuel trucks could pose more tarmac delays. As one can see, everything must be coordinated to be ready when your destination airport is set to receive arrivals again.

What can you do to help avoid potential tarmac delays in the first place? Once again, most of these diverts and subsequent tarmac delays occur during the summer when thunderstorms build. If your travel plans permit, try to avoid flights that leave or arrive in the late afternoon. This is particular true of places such as Denver, where the thunderstorms will start building over the mountains and move over DIA or start closing down the arrival and departure points, shrinking the airspace available and slowing all flights.

Finally, for an editorial view of this problem please see

Captain's Corner

Do you have an opinion on the new Tarmac Delay rule?

Do you have any comments on the new Tarmac Delay rule to take effect in May of 2010 in the United States? Do you believe that this rule can and will force the airlines to treat people right? Or will they come up with more excuses?

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Tarmac Delays back to Approach-Landing

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