Monday, September 27, 2010

(Another) New York Story

From our position at Gate 5, I couldn't see the lightning flashing over the skyscrapers of Manhattan or the tenements of the Bronx, but the flashes were reflected in the dark, heavy clouds above. Even inside the JungleBus cockpit, the air was thick with the smell of rain. A week after my introduction to LaGuardia, I was back for another turn, but this was shaping up to be a potentially much longer visit. I reloaded the radar screen on my phone. It showed an angry purple line just over the Hudson River. The storm was moving fast, 40 knots or better by my guess. Our flight attendant Eric handed in the passenger count, and First Officer Rob bent over the FMS to punch in the numbers and request our weight and balance numbers. A Captainly decision was in order.

Realistically, there was no way we were going to take off ahead of the squall line - not during the 5 pm rush at LaGuardia. The real question was whether we wanted to ride it out at the gate, or while in line for takeoff. It didn't particularly matter from a passenger standpoint; they were all on board already, and the gate agent wasn't going to want to deplane them for the 20 minutes it would take the line to pass. If we pushed back now, we would have an on-time departure - something the company has really been emphasizing lately - and a spot in line for takeoff once the airport reopened, potentially saving an hour or more of additional delay time. If we stayed at the gate, we would have to wait at least ten minutes after the storm passed to push back - that's how long it takes the ramp to reopen after a nearby lightning strike - and would then be competing with everyone to get out at the same time, a sort of ground-bound reenactment of my experience over Ripon. "Let's get out of dodge before the ramp closes," I decided. The gate agent closed the main cabin door, retracted the jet bridge, and waved goodbye as the first fat droplets of rain smashed onto our windscreen.

We pushed back from the gate just in time; the flashes were becoming brighter and more frequent, and the ramp closed only a minute or two after our ramp crew disconnected us at Spot 34. We started one engine and called for taxi; Ground Control informed us that the airport had just closed for departures, but we could taxi westward on Bravo, pull in tight behind a Cactus Airbus just past Mike, and shut down our engines. We did so, and then watched the western sky go completely black as the storm rolled across the airport. The southerly wind started blowing hard, shaking the plane with each gust. Planes and buildings on far side of Runway 4/22 disappeared into the rain, and within another minute a veritable wall of water was upon us.

Visibility shrank to almost nil in the extremely heavy rain. We were pulled up fairly tight behind the USAirways A320, yet I could barely see his tail, and couldn't make out his winglets or red beacon. The grassy areas between Taxiway Bravo and Runway 13 filled with rainwater within minutes. I would later learn that wind gusts approaching 100 mph were recorded in other parts of the city, and one man in Brooklyn was killed by a falling tree. For all its fury, though, the line took no more than five minutes to pass. As suddenly as it began, the rain petered out, the aircraft ahead of us reappeared, and the setting sun's golden rays burst through the gloom.

It took nearly 30 minutes for departures to resume. The wind was still favoring Runway 13, which would run departing aircraft right into the storm that had just passed. Instead, a steady stream of arrivals landed on Runway 22. Gridlock soon ensued as many of these arrivals could not make it to their gates due to the crush of outbound aircraft, or because their gates were still occupied by delayed departures. The departure line behind us snaked down Bravo, then back up Alpha to past Mike - completely cutting off access to and from the Widget and USAirways terminals. Finally, departures started trickling out, but the lineup on Bravo didn't budge until an hour after we pushed back. At that point, I estimated at least 40 aircraft ahead of us for departure.

Now I was seriously second-guessing my decision to push back before the storm. We had undoubtedly saved our passengers an hour, probably more, by doing so. However, the dreaded Three Hour Rule was rearing its ugly head. For those who are unfamiliar with this debacle, earlier this year unelected bureaucrats at the Department of Transportation decreed that air carriers could spend no more than three hours on the ground without giving their passengers an opportunity to deplane. The fine for violating the rule is a draconian $27,500 per passenger - more than $2 million on a full JungleBus, or more than the price of one of our engines. The Number One Imperative for airline pilots - short of "don't crash" - has become "don't violate the three hour rule." We have detailed procedures established for lengthy taxi delays, one of which decrees that you must begin a return to the terminal after two hours at any airport where congestion could significantly delay your taxi back. LaGuardia definitely qualifies in that regard.

Therefore, we had less than one hour to get off the ground, and a good 40 planes ahead of us. On good days, LaGuardia's maximum departure rate isn't much over 40/hour, and this was not a good day. When we returned to the terminal, it would likely entail another two to three hours of delay, assuming they didn't just cancel the flight altogether. All in the name of "Passenger Rights!"

But then a funny thing started happening: the Three Hour Rule actually worked in our favor as aircraft in line ahead of us began hitting the two hour limit and requesting to return to their gates. In many cases they were on the west side of 4/22, only ten or fifteen aircraft from departure, and it took ground control a long time to get them back across the runway and slowly working their way back on already-congested Taxiway Alpha. Those of us on Bravo, however, moved ahead steadily. I kept dispatch appraised of our progress every fifteen minutes or so, and continued to make PAs and ask our flight attendants about the mood in back.

At taxiway Golf-Golf, the lineup split into two: those headed north and west from New York proceeded straight ahead on Papa to Runway 13, while those of us going south stayed straight ahead on Bravo to cross 4/22 at Echo. One of the south departure gates, WHITE intersection, was still closed by the storm; those of us filed over WHITE had to be recleared via BIGGY, and then re-sequenced to provide adequate separation in trail. When we finally reached Echo, we were cleared to cross 4/22 and take a right on Delta-Delta, and told to contact clearance delivery for our reroute. The clearance delivery frequency was predictably jam-packed, and it took several minutes for Rob to get a word in edgewise. We had less than 20 minutes left. Once our reroute was copied, entered into the FMS, verified, and briefed, we told ground control we were ready to roll. He told us to hold short of the windsock and monitor tower, who would sequence us. Aircraft were converging from DD, CC, BB, and Papa; with less than 10 minutes remaining, our fate was wholly dependent on however ATC chose to sequence us.

"NewCo 5837, you're next, left on Golf and Papa, hold short of runway 13." We're getting out after all! We were cleared into position behind a departing Dash 8, waited for a United 757 landing on 22, and then cleared to take off. We roared down Runway 13 and lifted off one hour and 55 minutes after we pushed back.

We got lucky. I'm still not sure whether my decision to push back ahead of the storm was the correct one. Given the massive gridlock in the storm's wake, its possible that pushing back 40-60 minutes later would have still entailed a 2 hour taxi-out. The bottom line is that the Three Hour Rule makes it very difficult to operate at an airport like LaGuardia in anything other than perfect conditions. It has done absolutely nothing to improve the average passenger's experience; far the opposite. That hasn't stopped the unaccountable cretins at the DOT from claiming moral victory and proposing a new bevy of "passenger rights" rules. Even worse, they're playing fast and loose with the rules they do have in place, as evidenced by them fining United $12,000 for "wasting valuable Department resources" by dutifully reporting four delays that exceeded three hours!

These fools deserve to be run out of Washington on a rail, as do the politicians who allow this chicanery to go on. This is a bipartisan politican rant, by the way: while the Obama Administration owns this DOT, Secretary Ray LaHood is a Republican, and it's not like Republicans haven't appointed their share of idiots to the DOT (here's looking at you, Libby Dole). A pox on both their houses: our entire political establishment is corrupt and rotting. Come November, only one principal will guide my voting: no incumbent will receive my vote. A country where a vast, unaccountable bureaucracy has the ability to confiscate vast amounts of wealth based on arbitrary rules they impose at whim might not feel like much of a democracy - but by God, at least we still have the ability to Throw The Bums Out!


amulbunny's random thoughts said...

My sometimes wise husband says there might not be anyone to vote for, but there is always someone to vote against.

And don't you have the oh so wonderful Michelle Bachmann in your state?

Anonymous said...

Sam, I see what you're saying about the unwisdom of micromanaging regulations. Maybe 3 hours is too short. But surely the horror cases are too long.

Dunno, in the absence of regulations establishing standards, passengers may take to lawsuits to punish grossly wasted time upon a variety of legal theories. That may or may not work better from the airline's point of view.

Anonymous said...

Hey sam,
The New York area sounds ridiculous to fly out of- I was reading some of your past posts about the subject. I am the UND guy- did you happen to see the question I had for you on the previous post? Would you care if I emailed you a few questions?

Fred said...


Do you think the new bums will be better than the old bums? Really?

Watch this for what I've now come to think:

Jeremy said...


I don't think you understand the history behind the three hour regulation. It didn't result because politicians are idiots (while I agree that's mostly true). It came about as a result of strong lobbying from consumer groups - and consumers, the customers who pay your bills, are on the whole in favor of it. While I agree the fines are too high, and the situation you describe in this article is a bit ludicrous, the airlines clearly showed they couldn't handle this one themselves. The idea is to force the airlines to understand that their passengers do NOT want to sit on the tarmac for long periods of time, whatever excuse may exist. Even if the overall delay is longer if the plane must return after 2 hours as you describe, at least the passenger gets a chance to get off and get food, use the facilities, etc. - that's critically important.

If the result is massive gridlock at places like LaGuardia, and resultant high costs, maybe the airlines will start behaving more reasonably in their scheduling procedures - the weather in New York and the airspace congestion is no secret. Why not schedule fewer planes with more capacity to serve the same demand? In my opinion, your JungleJets have no place in a seriously congested airport - it should be all 737-800s, A321s, 757s, etc. As far as I can tell, that's the only proper fix for LaGuardia and similar airports that will serve everyone's needs - why isn't it happening?

Anonymous said...

I am with you on the voting. I have additional criteria: candidate must have little funding, an IQ > 90 and must not be a religious nutcase. This will narrow the field significantly. It may be that none of the above is the only option.

Sam said...

Amulbunny-- She's from MN, but she's in the 6th district, I'm in the 3rd. She *is* a consistent embarrassment, even if her politics are closer to my own than, say, Al Franken.

Anonymous-- Yeah, either 3 hours is too short or the $27k/pax fine is way too high, with a penalty that high the airlines go extremely conservative. I think we can all agree that the highly publicized cases of pax being stuck on the ground for 5-10 hours are ridiculous; however, they have been few and far between.

Fred-- Kudos on the Milton Friedman clip, hadn't seen that one before. I don't have any illusions of the new bums being particularly better. I do think a large turnover in Congress will reintroduce a little "fear of the people" to our elected reps, something that's been missing the last years with all the gerrymandered secure districts, etc. Friedman was right, congresscritters *are* in the business of being reelected. Making them feel like no seat is safe is a great way to "make the wrong people do the right thing."

Jeremy--Great comment, albeit one with parts that I disagree with. Actually, it deserves its own response...standby...

Sam said...


I don't know how many actual consumers lobbied congress/DOT for this regulation. As for the "Passenger Rights" organizers, I've seen them plenty on TV and they come across as blathering idiots who have no idea of the realities of how the airlines run. That said, of course absolutely nobody wants to be in a terrible situation like JetBlue's Valentine's Day Massacre, or the ExpressJet ERJ in RST, or any of the other highly publicized incidents in which customers were trapped on airplanes for many hours with no food, overflowing toilets, and panicking passengers. These incidents are generally caused by extenuating circumstances, but are often worsened by the airlines' failure to plan for the worst.

They are also pretty rare events. You hear about them once or twice a year, out of some 13 million flights. I won't say it's a non-existent problem, but it's a rare enough situation that you have to make sure any solution doesn't severely screw up the whole system. Just flatly decreeing no three hour taxi times, without making allowance for congested airports that have rush-hour taxi times approaching two hours in *normal* circumstances, and then imposing a draconian $27k/pax fine for violations, is the proverbial sledgehammer for a thumbtack. They'll eliminate the few high-profile nightmare situations, all right, but they're creating infinitely more "little nightmares" that go unreported - the additional delays, misconnects, cancellations. However hard the "Passenger Rights" people pushed this thing, it is not a good thing for the average passenger; far the opposite. for the congestion that exists at LGA, JFK, etc. This one I agree with you on, my JungleBus and other regional airliners have no business at these airports. They are there, however, because all the premium business travelers want direct service, and they want high frequency. No airline is willing to put themselves at a disadvantage for this business segment by making everyone connect through Atlanta, Philly, and Detroit, or only flying LGA-MDT once or twice a day. The only way you'll cut down on congestion is by imposing something on all airlines equally, such as a ban on aircraft of under 100 seats, or by cutting everyone's slots by 20%. Of course, this also has a downside for the consumer, as small communities lose direct service, less frequency restricts travelers flexibility, and/or fares go up.