Flying Stories
One of those nights…
April 18, 2011

We learned of the initial delay as we stepped off the jet bridge.  Our first flight from Seattle to LAX was uneventful.  But, we were delayed an extra ninety minutes going to New York.  Even on-time, it would have been a pretty long day.  With news of the ground delay program to JFK, the day got a lot longer.

The FAA has really increased the use of ground delay programs.  When the weather gets bad, the airport and/or arrival corridors cannot handle as much traffic.  Controllers issue “wheels up” times to all the aircraft scheduled to land at the delayed airport.  In theory, the aircraft will be spaced properly and eliminate the need for airborne holding.

Looking at the weather radar and forecast, I had a hunch that theory would not hold up.  Fortunately, we loaded as much fuel as the aircraft could carry.  To avoid a diversion to our alternate, we were going to need it.

It was my leg to fly.  Runway 24L was under construction, so we taxied across over to runway 24R.  We departed on the Loop Departure which turns back towards the east to cross LAX above 10,000 feet.  The flight plan showed five hours en route.

Four hours into the trip, it was looking like we might fly straight into JFK without any delay.  The tower was reporting strong winds and rain but good visibility under the clouds.  Just past Scranton, things began to change.

The controllers issued our first holding pattern of the evening.  It came with an expect further clearance (EFC) time of forty minutes later.  But, after one turn in holding, we were cleared back towards the airport.  It was just a matter of minutes.  Did we really get that lucky?

Nope… About thirty five miles from JFK, we were issued another holding pattern.  Again, the EFC was forty minutes later.  We had enough holding fuel for the forty minutes, but anything longer would require a diversion to our alternate.

About thirty five minutes into the hold, the controller pushed the EFC time out another thirty minutes.  We notified the controller we could only hold for about another five minutes.  A United jet behind us did the same.  Suddenly, we were cleared early out of the holding pattern.  Thank you New York Approach.

During the time we were making circles in the sky, we were in constant contact with our dispatcher.  We were able to change the alternate to a closer airport that would require less fuel to reach.  That gave us plenty of extra fuel to fly around New York while being sequenced to land.

We were given the grand tour.  Well, I guess it wasn’t much of a tour since I couldn’t see anything more than the static discharge on my windshield.  (A phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s Fire… it looks like mini-lightning dissipating on the windshield.)  We were also in moderate to heavy rain the entire time.  We flew east over long island, south over the ocean, west back towards Manhattan, then north, then down the final for runway 13L at JFK.

The aircraft “broke out” of the clouds about five hundred feet.  The winds were gusting to 35 knots with moderate rain falling at the field.  We touched-down, stopped, and started the taxi to the gate.

When we arrived at our ramp entrance point, there was a 747 under tow blocking our access to our gate. It didn’t appear they were in any hurry to get out of our way.

We don’t make many PA announcements once we push from the gate. Whatever we have to say isn’t usually worth interrupting our entertainment system.  But, that night, the captain made a PA informing the guests of the first and second holding patterns.  Then, a PA was made to let them know we were starting the arrival. I needed to make a PA to inform them of the jumbo jet blocking our path.  We were always truthful and upbeat, but I could definitely see how a passenger might feel like they were getting the runaround.

We were very late.  As a passenger, that can be annoying.  I was hoping the frustration would not be unleashed on us.  I reminded myself to be professional and courteous no matter what comment was thrown my way.  I opened the cockpit door fully expecting the mood to be somber.

One of the guests was hugging our lead flight attendant.  They were both laughing and saying goodbye.  As people walked up the aisle, the scene kept repeating… hugs, high fives, smiles, and laughter.  Did we really just land in New York hours behind schedule?

As children exited the jet, our lead addressed them by name.  “Here’s Steven… thanks Jonathan… little Suzie you’re so adorable. ” Then, to the parents: “Thanks Mike and Sue.. you have a lovely family.”  I tried to smile and say goodbye, but nobody was even looking at me.  Rightfully so, it was all about her.

The only comment directed towards me?  “They were amazing.”

Our flight attendant team pulled off a miracle.  At the end of a flight to New York with several rolling delays, everyone left happy.  They worked hard, stayed cheerful, and provided unbelievable customer service.  Instead of just doing a job, they formed personal relationships with all the guests.

My thoughts drifted back to my job interview.  We were told that although our customer service surveys score high, they score even higher when something goes wrong.  All airlines have delays and problems, but how the people handle the issue can make or break a customer’s loyalty.

Using their unbelievable personalities, I’m sure our team won some loyalty over New York.

Great work guys… I was impressed.

Radar track of the flight into JFK

About author

Renewed Pilot

I've endured a roller coaster career in the U.S. Aviation Industry. Currently flying the 737 on my third try with the same legacy carrier, I have also flown for a regional, fractional and start-up carrier. My piloting experience includes the 737, A320, 727, Citation Excel, Citation Bravo, Saab 340 and many light singles and twin engine aircraft. I reside in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee.

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There are 3 comments

  • Jesus Calderon says:

    Very interesting, thumbs up for all the crew. Richard Brandson should be more than proud of crews like that! 😉

  • Pam Deveau says:

    And I’m sure you told your flight attendant team how impressed you were. That’s kinda like getting an “ata girl” from your boss!!!

  • […] After leveling off in the darkness over California, we started discussing our last trip.  First, I mentioned the nice dinner we had with the whole crew up in Seattle.  Then, we reminisced about a flight to New York.  Although I never mentioned Chad by name, our last trip to New York was chronicled in the blog.  Thanks completely to our amazing in-flight (flight attendant) team, what seemed like a debacle turned into a shining moment for our airline. You can read that whole story by clicking here. […]

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