I stood in the gate area with absolutely no expectations of boarding the flight.
What was keeping me there? The universally understood jump-seating rule that says never walk away until the airplane pushes back with a bottom in every seat.
It was the last flight of the night to Nashville.
Day four of the trip had been long and tiring. The BNA-EWR-BDA-EWR series of flights would have been fairly routine if it hadn’t included a two and a half hour delay heading outbound to Bermuda. We had just returned to New Jersey after our third flight of the day and it was time to commute back home.
The flight was oversold by four passengers. Gate agent pleas for revenue travelers to exchange their seats for compensation had already begun over the loud speaker.
There were also two pilots senior* to me listed for the lone flight deck jump-seat.
Once one of those other guys showed up, I was going to call my favorite cargo carrier and arrange a two-leg ride home in the middle of the night.
Much to my amazement, I was still the only pilot at the gate fifteen minutes before departure. The agent handed me a flight deck access card.
I wished another non-rev traveler well before heading down the jet-bridge. She had no other options to fly to Nashville that evening.
For the next ten minutes, I silently prayed that an out-of-breath, sweaty, more “senior” pilot didn’t suddenly appear and bump me off the 737-700 jump-seat. My airline does not have a formal cut-off time to restrict jump-seaters from
backstabbing bumping more junior pilots at the last minute.
At 23:40z (7:40 p.m. EDT), minutes after closing the main cabin door, I felt relieved as we pushed back from the gate. I half expected to see a dejected pilot staring out the window of the terminal, but as far as I could tell, I was officially the only jump-seater.
Yay! Even with the non-rev deck stacked against me, I was heading home.
I immediately clicked with the crew. The first officer and I had a similar career story and the captain was nice and friendly.
Once the tug operator turned the 737’s tail towards the back of the alley, a significant problem started to come into focus: There were aircraft everywhere and none of them were moving.
Newark is routinely busy and often the brunt of many jokes. It is not uncommon to wait behind fifteen or twenty aircraft before reaching the runway. However, that evening, something was disrupting the system and magnifying the craziness.
The crew’s request for taxi was denied and we were instructed to hold our current position on the ramp. We were informed that Washington Center was refusing all traffic due to thunderstorms and New York was working on re-routing aircraft. That is always a slow and arduous process.
Twenty minutes later, we hadn’t moved.
Finally, we received permission to commence the taxi. Unfortunately, the clearance was only to clear the alley and move around to the far northwest side of the ramp. The ramp is controlled by the company. About thirty minutes had elapsed since the push and we still hadn’t spoken to ground control.
As we sat idle staring at the airport saturated with jets, a disturbing possibility crept into my head.
“Hey guys?” I asked. “What is your CCO time?”
“Oh, yeah… that’s a good question,” the first officer answered as he picked up the sheet that printed immediately after we pushed. “01:11z.”
That was 9:11 p.m. EDT. It was about 8:15 p.m. when I asked the question.
“Is that a block or duty CCO?” I asked.
CCO is short for Critical Crew Off time. The airplane must takeoff by the CCO time for the crew to legally complete the flight under the new(er) Part 117 rest rules.
There are two types of CCO times: duty and block.
The duty CCO calculation is based on how much time the crew has been on duty. The maximum hours is dependent on the time the pilots report for duty and the number of legs flown that day. Total allowable hours for a “line-holder” ranges between nine and fourteen hours for a two person crew. The rules are a bit different for reserve pilots, but the concept is the same. The airplane must be able to takeoff, land and taxi to the gate before the crew exceeds their maximum allowable duty time. Duty time, however, may be “extended” under certain circumstances with concurrence from the crew. If the crew accepts a two hour extension, that allows two extra hours to become airborne.
A block CCO deals with the amount of flight time pilots can accrue in one day. “Flight time” for these rules includes taxiing to the runway, flying and taxi time to the gate at the destination. The limit is either eight or nine hours depending on the time of the day the crew reported for duty.
In the “old days” prior to Part 117 (three years ago), we had an eight hour scheduling limit. We could not be scheduled for more than eight hours, but we were always legal to complete whatever was originally scheduled.
For example, under the old rules it was legal to schedule us for back to back three hour and forty five minute flights. The total scheduled flight time for that day would be seven and a half hours. On the first leg, if we entered holding and added an extra hour to the flight, our flight time would be four hours and forty five minutes after the first leg. The second leg could still be flown even though we would exceed eight hours for that day. The commonly used phrase was “legal to start, legal to finish.”
Not under 117. Unlike duty limits, block time limits cannot be extended.
That evening, the crew’s limit was nine hours. They had already flown a leg from Panama to Newark.
Every minute off the gate was counting towards the maximum flight time for that day.
The computer calculated that 9:11 p.m. was the latest time the jet could depart, fly to Nashville and taxi to the gate while keeping the pilots under nine hours of block.
If we weren’t airborne by 9:11, the flight would have to return to the gate. At best, it would have been a lengthy delay while the airline re-crewed the flight. At worst and most likely, the flight would be canceled. (I couldn’t offer to fly because my duty and block limits would have been exceeded.)
Did I mention I liked the crew?
They immediately got proactive.
Messages were sent to dispatch to bring attention to the situation. We were all hoping they could coordinate something with air traffic control to prioritize us off the ground.
The first officer also radioed the tower to see if there was even an infinitesimal chance they’d have some sympathy for our predicament.
By then, we were crawling in the general direction of the departure runway.
Over the next thirty minutes, I rode the emotional roller coaster. Calls to ATC led us to believe we’d get off the ground before the cut-off. Looking at the line-up in front of us offered visual evidence that it just wasn’t going to happen.
To make matters worse, if we returned to the gate, I would be too late to make the report time for the cargo carrier.
I’m not a big fan of buying a hotel room AFTER a trip.
When I’m done working, I just want to go home.
At 8:50 p.m., the voice of the tower controller changed. To inquire if our request was passed along to the new controller, the first officer again queried as to whether or not we’d be able to beat the clock out of Newark.
“Sir, I’ve got like thirty airplanes I need to get out of here right now. I can’t make any promises.”
Apparently, he wasn’t familiar with our situation and didn’t seem as hopeful as the previous controller.
On taxiway Romeo, with about ten airplanes ahead of us for take-off, I started thinking about which hotel I was going to call first.
We inched forward.
There was just no way.
At 8:55, the controller asked if we could access taxi-way Juliet. It was the same voice, but his tone had changed for the better.
“Cross runway 22R on Juliet, turn left on Papa and taxi to 22R at Whiskey. We can make this work for you.”
The pilots switched on the required lights to cross the runway and quickly complied with the controller’s instructions.
As we approached Whiskey between 22R and 22L, there were two other aircraft in front of us.
It was going to be close.
At 9:04 p.m., the tower controller said the magic words: “You are cleared for takeoff.”
The captain wasted no time pushing the thrust levers into the take-off position. We roared past all the other airplanes waiting to depart and rotated into the night sky. When told to contact departure, the first officer thanked the controller for working with us.
We turned southwest and did not encounter any weather on the way to BNA.
Commuting isn’t pretty, but it is always an adventure.
* I was hired years before either one of the two pilots listed. However, on the post-merger joint seniority list, they are senior to me.
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