(Another) New York Story
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!