In aviation, there always seems to be something throwing the proverbial wrench in the gears.
I started my airline career flying a turbo-prop in a massive ice storm in the Northeast. Since then, I’ve watched 9/11, hurricanes, accidents, runway closures, contract negotiations, mergers, sky-high fuel prices and over-hyped deadly diseases mess with my career. Just when everything seems to be running smoothly, the next bump in the road comes along. This is true for life in general… but, seemingly magnified when it involves aviation.
Honestly, things have been going really well for me recently. For the last three months, I’ve been flying Temporary Duty (TDY) in bases other than Newark. For July and August, I became a Houston pilot. In September, trips started and ended in Chicago. For October, I’m heading back down to Texas.
Per our contract, TDY includes extra per diem, a hotel in base and positive space tickets back and forth to home.
It’s really a commuting pilot’s answer to a lot of prayers.
Except for a few routine hiccups in the schedule, my commute has been easy. Weeks ago, I was starting to feel like things were going too smoothly and began anticipating the next unforeseen event.
On Friday morning, a disgruntled individual decided to destroy the communications equipment at Chicago Center in Illinois. From what I read, he wrapped gasoline soaked rags around the communication lines and set them ablaze. He apparently succeeded in shutting down the radar services over the large swath of airspace. Don’t ever be fooled into believing that one person can’t make a difference.
Of course, the media got it all wrong. The reporters kept speaking about the control tower fire in Chicago. Towers house men and woman who sit high above the airport. They look out the window and control ground movement, takeoffs and landings. Once en route, aircraft are “handed off” to facilities housed in buildings with no windows.
Air traffic control centers are scattered all over the country. The controllers provide radar separation while staring at blips on big monitors. To knock-out an entire center eliminates radar over a very large area. Most aircraft operating in and out of Chicago’s two big airports must flow through Chicago Center. Airplanes traversing east/west through the Midwest are also controlled by Chicago. They can control jets without radar, but it severely limits the amount of traffic the airspace can handle.
Imagine waking up one morning to learn that every major road in and out of your city was restricted to one lane of vehicles. What kind of traffic backup would that cause? The aviation equivalent of that started happening in Chicago last Friday.
When I learned of the arson on Friday morning, I did what any respectable airline pilot would do: I selfishly asked, “How will this affect ME?”
On Thursday, we had flown from Dulles out to Denver and then back to Dulles. Around 11:30pm, we took a forty minute van ride to our hotel in downtown Washington, D.C. Friday evening, we were scheduled to fly a trans-con out to Seattle for a twenty seven hour layover followed by a red-eye back to Chicago.
On Friday evening, our aircraft was scheduled to arrive from Phoenix. Therefore, the radar outage wouldn’t cause any delays for the flight to Seattle.
For the red-eye, I knew we’d fly in from the northwest and have very little traffic at 5:30am. Again, I anticipated no problems on that flight.
The first impact I’d feel from the radar outage would be my commute home to Nashville on Sunday morning.
Friday evening, we rode the van back out to Dulles, loaded up a 737-900ER and launched off runway 1R for a four hour and forty one minute flight to Seattle. Over Ohio, a Cleveland Center controller re-cleared us further to the north than we were originally routed. With very little headwind, we still arrived early in Seattle.
After a full night’s sleep, I woke early and started my Saturday morning with a long walk around Seattle. I hadn’t been there for awhile, and it is was nice to walk through the Public Market and along the waterfront. At 12:30, I went to the cinema, bought a large popcorn and spent the next two hours in a dark theater watching Denzel Washington kick ass in The Equalizer. Gotta fill twenty seven hours somehow, right?
Later that evening, I attempted to check-in for my commute flight the following morning. The app notified me that my 8am Sunday flight was canceled and I was re-booked to 9pm Monday night. A little bit later, I was able to secure a seat on the 2pm flight on Sunday.
After a nap, I left the hotel at 10:30pm. On the van ride, I noticed the 2:15pm Sunday flight to Nashville had also been canceled.
We arrived at the gate in Chicago at 5:15am.
A quick check of the app revealed that every flight to Nashville was canceled.
In the terminal, the flight status board looked like a winter blizzard was bearing down on O’Hare. Canceled, canceled, and more canceled.
It’s not too bad commuting home immediately after operating a red-eye, but I was simply too tired to hang around for hours.
I had a basic backup plan in mind when I went to the hotel to catch some sleep.
At 11:00am, I woke and checked the app on my phone… The flight from Chicago to Huntsville had not canceled and was showing “On Schedule.”
Huntsville has a beautiful airport only an hour and ten minutes from my home. I was able to reserve a rental car to pickup at HSV and drop off at BNA for $67.
With boarding pass in-hand, I walked back to the terminal and stopped for lunch at the Subway by the American gates. I was surrounded by very frustrated passengers.
A woman near me was speaking very loud on her cell phone. I heard her say, “Oh nooo…. It’s not the AIRLINE’S fault. It’s AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL’S fault. Yeah, right.”
Undoubtedly, this woman was booked on a flight that was either delayed or canceled. The gate agent probably tried to explain the situation, but most people don’t understand the magnitude of the problem. Without radar services, airlines’ hands are tied.
My flight pushed back on-time for Huntsville. I was a little concerned that the taxi would be lengthy due to the “in trail” separation required for departures. Friends on Facebook had been complaining about one hour taxi times due to the spacing required between takeoffs. After about fifteen minutes on the ground, the EMB-145 accelerated down 22L, lifted off and turned towards Alabama. Although a little frustrating to fly past home, I was very happy to touchdown on-time in the same part of the country that I live. Plus, it’s always a pleasure traveling through the Huntsville Airport.
I grabbed my suitcase and rushed through the ultra-modern terminal towards the rental car counter. (That’s not sarcasm… It’s a REALLY nice terminal.) I’d heard about seven or eight other people discussing renting vehicles to drive to Nashville. I didn’t want to get stuck in a long line. (Yes, I offered a ride to an ExpressJet pilot and another passenger… Seemingly content to stick with their original plans, they both politely declined my offer.)
When I arrived at the counter, the nicest man in Alabama was there to greet me with a smile. As he was retrieving my reservation, I again did what any respectable airline pilot would do: I asked for an airline employee discount.
With taxes and fees included, the new bill was $45.
After a pre-flight damage inspection and mirror & seat adjustment, I pulled the 2015 Chevy Impala out of the parking garage and headed towards the highway.
On the way home, I debated driving all the way up to BNA to return the vehicle and pick up my truck. I saw some value in just “getting it over with” all the same day.
After some mental back-and-forth, I decided it would be best to drive straight home. The rental car didn’t have to be returned until 4pm the next day. I was tired and anxious to see my family.
Plus, I knew my kids would like to ride to school Monday morning in the dad’s “cool car.” Don’t think a brand new Impala is cool? Tell that to a child.
If the commute had gone as originally planned, I would have rolled into my driveway about 10:30am ready to sleep half the day. Instead, I arrived home “somewhat” rested about 5:30pm.
Compared to what many travelers experienced this weekend, I consider myself very fortunate that my backup to my third backup plan was executed flawlessly.
How was your work commute last week?
If you like what you read on this blog, please share the posts using the social media buttons. Like most bloggers, I will continue to write if there appears to be interest in the material I publish.