In the airport industry, there are a few things that cannot be controlled – like the weather. But take a passenger with bag packed and an expensive holiday or a business meeting foremost on their mind, and even this excuse rarely dulls tempers when it comes to airport delays.
WEATHER THE STORM
How delays are handled – from posting early warnings and alerting all terminal customers to incorporating spaces, such as play areas, that can keep the entire family occupied while they suffer the knock-on affect of a delayed flight, can really count.
What a lot of customers do not realise is how operations of airlines and airports have changed over the years regarding weather delays. Lights were launched to high-traffic airports such as London, New York, and Atlanta with enough fuel to handle the forecast weather at these destinations, regardless of thick fog, rain or snow.
When the air traffic backed up or was turned back the airliners simply entered airborne holding. Then, based on their fuel burn and the weather, either waited their turn or deviated to a field with better weather to get more fuel for more holding.
These airlines held in the air, rather than on the ground for two reasons. Firstly, flights didn't want to lose their place in the queue for the approach and landing, and secondly, there was no system-wide air-traffic coordination available. Even when the weather was adequate for a safe approach and landing they still had airborne holding due to the traffic back-ups.
Today, as passengers must realise, holds are taken on the ground in the form of a ground stop. Hence the formation of lengthy check-in lines and changed gates at airports when flights are delayed.
Sometimes, if the weather at the departure airport is too severe for departures, the entire field will undergo a ground stop. If the field is closed for departures it is almost always closed to arrivals as well because take-off weather minimums are generally much lower than approach minimums.
Ground stops for thunderstorm activity can pass in a relatively short time based on the intensity and movement of the storms. Ground stops for other weather phenomenon like snow and fog can last much longer – sometimes, in the case of snow, for days.
THE AIRPORT PRISONER
The weather delays that bother passengers the most are the ones for their destination city. They may be sitting on the ramp at their departure airport during a nice, sunny and calm day and still be told they are holding for weather.
In the old days, they would have pushed back and their flight would have headed in the direction of their weathered-in destination. Once in the area, their flight would have held in the air, sometimes for hours, awaiting a break in the storm and a slot in the now overcrowded skies to make their approach.
Thankfully, air traffic control systems now have coordination centres and computer software capable of metering traffic into large airports during weather problems or high-traffic times. In the case of inclement weather, the coordination centres assign departure times based normally on the time the flight called for its clearance.
This system allows flights already on the taxiways to turn off their engines and save fuel during long delays. So some benefit is made from handling weather delays in this way.
But this does not keep the passenger that has become prisoner on the ramp or taxiways happy, or those waiting for their flights that are next to arrive. In their view these delays can go from the sublime to the ridiculous rather quickly and become more of a survival exercise than a travel experience.
Airline captains will attempt to keep passengers informed wherever possible, but airports can also do their part in helping make the journey smooth before and after boarding the plane. Air traffic control processes may have changed, and this might be seen as being positive for the industry overall, but the passenger seldom sees this.