• Delays

    The Mother of All Delays, at least in my career, took place, appropriately enough, at that vortex of all delays - Chicago O'Hare. This one was back in the early days of my AA career, when I was flying sideways tending the fires and watering the horses. We were embarking upon a three day trip that started, as so many did at AA in those days, with an LGA-ORD leg, to be followed by a flight to Tulsa or some such place. Our weather briefing at LGA (done live by dispatchers who, at that time, actually occupied the operations area upstairs in the days before AA brought them all to DFW, to a centralized dispatch facility) indicated that the weather at ORD was going to be "interesting", in the Chinese sense. And so it proved to be.


    We picked up our first holding instructions in the vicinity of Detroit, and spent some time circling the Motor City. Fortunately, the Captain and the dispatcher had both agreed to carry as much fuel as the ship could bear, and so although we were quite heavy we enjoyed a surfeit of fuel, such that diverting to an alternate was not yet a concern, nor would it be for some considerable time. The cause of all of this was a massive line of thunderstorms moving from west to east across Illinois. It was dissipating, but still lively enough to thrash the ATC system at Chicago into submission for awhile. After about 30 minutes over Detroit we were advanced a bit west to the Pullman VOR, southwest of Grand Rapids, where we spent another half hour boring holes in the sky.

    While this was going on, I queried the company on the number two radio as to the situation on the ground at ORD. The reply was intriguing, suggesting as it did a state of total chaos on the field. Apparently the airport had run out of room to handle airplanes since there were so many on the ground awaiting takeoff. For further entertainment, I tuned ORD ground control on that same radio and we all listened with amazement to controllers who were out of space and ideas all at once. It did seem that, by strenuous effort, they had managed to keep the inner taxiway more or less fluid, at the price of keeping some airplanes just going around in circles until their gates opened up. So when the weather between us and the airport began to dissipate (it actually more or less evaporated in situ, and we never did have to penetrate anything more significant than a rain shower, quite fortunately) they were able to accept arrivals even though there was still a good bit of weather off to the west, and many of their departure gateways were still hors de combat.

    Delays - rain shower

    After around 45 minutes at Pullman we were vectored toward the field, albeit with quite a few speed reductions. When we were on final we could finally see what was happening - and I had never, before or since, seen so many large airplanes on one airport at one time. There were hundreds of planes, lined up and down every taxiway and several of the runways that were not in use. The line snaked past the Air National Guard, past that old Comet jet that was still decaying in place at that time, through the maintenance area, in out around and through the maze of taxiways that, in those days, bore evocative and occasionally humorous names instead of letters like Alpha and Bravo. It took us the better part of 30 minutes to taxi to our gate, which was fortunately available. Yet another piece of good fortune for us was the fact that we were to keep the same airplane for the next leg of our journey; and dispatch, eager to avoid increasing their problems, kept it that way. So after about 45 minutes of unloading, refueling and loading we got back into the conga line, which did not seem to have diminished by even so much as a single airplane!


    In a move of sheer desperation, ORD ground control sent us off to the only patch of unoccupied concrete they had, way off at the northwest edge of the field at the departure end of 32L. In so doing, they informed us that they expected a delay for us of several hours. So we shut down all of the engines, and gave the flight attendants clearance to do a beverage service of sorts. But our fortune was to be better than most that day, for lo and behold the wind shifted, enough that they decided to start using 14R, the runway that we were more or less number one for, for takeoffs. They literally had to get us out of the way in order to be able to use it! As soon as the cabin crew was able to button everything up in back we were on our way to our next destination. The total delay, inbound and outbound, was over four hours. And we had it perhaps an hour better than just about everyone else that day. Later that evening, at the hotel, we toasted Fortune, hoping that she would continue to smile upon us. And she did, for I never again encountered such a delay in my career. Oh, there would be delays aplenty to come, but never involving that many airplanes on one field!

    These days airborne delays are becoming rare. The FAA and the airlines tend to hold airplanes on the ground, in so-called ground stops, to prevent airborne holding. Instead of being in an airliner flying in circles, you will probably spend your delay in one of the airport bars, which is certainly a more pleasant prospect than sitting in coach for what seems an eternity with the seatbelt sign on. And when things start to really look bad, like a hurricane or a major winter storm, flights in the thousands are flat out cancelled, so most of us don't even have to go to the airport at all, at least on the original day.


    So spare a sympathetic thought for your crew when next you are delayed on a flight - their plans may be getting even more messed up than your own. And take what comfort you can from the plight of passengers on Amtrak, who can be delayed by the myriad freight trains that often take priority on the rails. At least, while holding or waiting in the bar, you do not have to gaze upon the impudent cause of your delay, as you sit motionless on a side track watching a mile long hot-shot freight whiz by, to arrive at your destination hours, perhaps a day before you will get there. That must be frustrating - even in the dining car!

    Happy Landings!

    Tony Vallillo


    Tags: delays

    1. allanj12's Avatar
      allanj12 -
      Thanks for sharing the reminiscences, Tony. They brought back one or two shudders of my own travels!
    1. jgmustang's Avatar
      jgmustang -
      Amtrak might take longer, but it is a lot more fun.
    1. dbauder's Avatar
      dbauder -
      Tony, thanks for the anecdotes. As a retired Captain, I believe every one, been there done that, to an extent. I created my own delay one day. I was to take off from Tampa Florida (KTPA) one January morning and there was some frost on the wings. I asked the Agent what deicing was available and she laughed. She said the Captain the previous morning parked uphill on the crossover bridge (not on the actual bridge). Therefore, we were facing west and the wings were fully facing the sun in the east. It only took twenty minutes to 'defrost'.
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