Monday, April 22, 2013

Gander. Oh...Canada?!

When I wrote a while back about my airline employer's use of a novel aircraft solution for NYC -Berlin service, I overlooked one potential downside of that solution: seasonal wind variations. Well, I didn't so much overlook it as I sort of "put it aside" as seasonally irrelevent.

In the northern hemisphere, winds "at altitude" (the height at which aircraft normally operate) normally blow predominantly west-to-east. Most of the year, that simply means that an eastbound flight between two given cities takes less time (with tailwinds) than a westbound flight between the same two cities (headwinds). The directional variation in flight time is proportionate to distance traveled. For example, a 600 mile flight might only vary by a few minutes, directionally, wheras a 6,000 mile flight may vary by hours.

During the northern hemisphere's winter season, however, prevailing winds are notably more intense than in summer. So, scheduled flight times will also vary notably, in accordance. Often such weather variables can be predicted with some reliability. When it be becomes evident that winds will challenge the operational "envelope" of the aircraft assigned to a route (the 757-200 in this case), a longer range aircraft with similar capacity will be substituted (normally a 767-200ER). Although we are well into spring, weather variables do NOT respect arbitrary human boundaries.

Our Newark to Berlin flight is normally schedule to be a little over 8 hours while Berlin to Newark is over 9 hours. But this week, the winds aloft are blowing so unseasonably intensely, that we arrived in Berlin on Saturday morning after only 6 hours, 49 minutes in flight! Our flight plan was scheduled to be so short that we were required to delay departure by over half an hour from Newark because we would be arriving too early in Berlin...the airport wouldn't be open (an entirely separate topic). Conversely, our return flight today was dramatically lengthened due to intense headwinds. Had we been able to fly it "non-stop", it would have taken over 10 hours.

I say "if" because we, in fact, did NOT fly non-stop from Berlin to Newark today! We made what is called a "technical stop" in Gander, Newfoundland for additional fuel. Fuel stops, as they are more commonly known, occur more frequently than most are aware. Generally, they don't mean that you can't reach your destination without extra fuel. They mean that you can't reach your destination or your designated alternate city with the fuel onboard, given prevailing conditions. In our case, prevailing conditions included the intense headwind, "iffy" weather at Newark AND the potential of issues arising from the recent federal cuts in air traffic control staff resulting from "sequester".

So, we were on the ground in Canada for approximately an hour. The net result was that instead of arriving in Newark at 12:50pm, as scheduled, we arrived at 3:30pm. The ensuing chaos to our passengers' plans and operation could have easily justified the additional cost of "up gauging" to a larger aircraft. But unlike the dead of winter when the planners in our NOC (Network Operations Control) Center look for and expect this kind of wind phenomenon, this weekend's circumstances were not predicted. Do I have to explain how our passengers felt about our irregularity?

So many factors play crucial roles in airline performance and we, all of us, take it for granted that the technological resources exist to master all of those circumstances. Of all the things that ARE within our 21st century span of control, weather is NOT one of them.

Inconvenience and complications aside, I kind of like the fact that we can't control everything! Don't we occasionally need a reminder that we're "only human", after all? It's strangely comforting, really.

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