You’ve booked your honeymoon cruise and since you’re smarter than the average traveler, you planned to be in San Juan more than a day early just to be safe.
Sometimes though, no matter how hard we try, forces just stack up against passengers and their flight crews. The San Juan one-day trip I flew just before Christmas is the perfect example.
Two 757s diverted into New York the night before because of a snow storm, and one of them happened to be our airplane for the noon departure from Boston to San Juan. I’d been called out to cover a trip on reserve the night before, so I watched with interest the progress of our airplane in the morning.
To make matters worse, another 8 inches of snow had fallen overnight at my house, so I had to snow blow the driveway at 7:30 a.m. for an hour. I wasn’t too surprised when the company called to tell me we’d be delayed until 1:30 p.m. while the airplane was brought up from New York.
I finished the driveway and checked the computer. Our airplane was being ferried (flown empty for repositioning purposes) from JFK by another reserve crew.
I made it to the airport for the later departure, but my captain had signed in earlier in the morning, before we knew the flight would be delayed. That meant his clock had started to run, counting toward the 14 hours of maximum duty day he was allowed to fly. Surely this wouldn’t be a problem, right?
Our airplane finally arrived an hour later than planned after sitting on the taxiway in New York in heavy snow. The flight had a taxi time of over an hour while it snowed at Kennedy.
Unfortunately, the pilots discovered a high stage bleed-air valve light had illuminated during the ferry flight, which meant that maintenance would have to try to fix the problem before we could depart, if they had the part in stock.
Bleed-air is the air that’s pulled from the engines to pressurize the airplane and heat or cool the cabin. There are two valves, a low stage and a high stage, that open depending on the amount of air needed. When the High Stage light is illuminated, it means that the valve is not in the position that’s being demanded at that moment. In our case, it was probably stuck open.
This was going to be a big job. And the task was made especially tough, since the other airplane ferried up from New York to be used for a Providenciales flight had a mechanical problem serious enough that it may be necessary to cancel that flight. I never did find out what the issue was on that airplane.
Not only that, but the 767 immediately to our right had an issue where both engines weren’t accelerating at the same rate–a problem that would take at least an hour to fix.
Maintenance was determined to get at least one of the three flights out of town that snowy, cold afternoon.
It was decided that the priority would be placed on the transcon 767 flight and our flight. Apparently the Providenciales flight had bigger problems than we did.
The mechanics estimated it would take two hours to change the bleed valve, since they had a replacement part available. They went to work right away in the blowing snow, opening the cowling of our right engine and crawling to the top of the compressor section while the 30 mph wind made the 12 degree air feel like -10 degrees F.
These mechanics were the real heroes that night. They never complained for a moment, even though the two hour job turned into a seven hour project. We stayed with the airplane and occasionally wandered into the gate area to answer questions.
Passengers were understandably frustrated and worried about their connections to various cruise lines. I couldn’t help but empathize with their situation. I tried to give them as much detail as possible, so they at least had an idea what was happening.
I usually leave this kind of discussion up to the captain, but when he wasn’t around, I braved the annoyed crowd to give them updates. To get more information, I checked on the mechanics, but I really didn’t want to pester them too often.
I never saw these guys take a break, and finally, after spending six hours in the cold, they had changed the valve.
By this time, we were within an hour and fifteen minutes of running out of duty time. We needed to be able to complete the 4 hour flight from Boston to San Juan within the 14 hour maximum duty day. And even though the valve had been replaced, the engine still needed to be started at the gate, shut down and then opened up again to check for any leaks.
If it passed the leak check, the next step was to taxi with the mechanics to a safe place to perform a high powered run-up. It was going to be close, but if we could get the passengers on the plane and the door closed before our 10:15 p.m. deadline we could make it.
I went to the gate to explain the situation to the waiting passengers while maintenance closed up the cowling and ran the engine. I was impressed that, while most of the passengers were frustrated with the situation, they genuinely understood what we were up against and that we were all trying to make it work.
Finally at 9:45 p.m. we had the engine running. It took far longer than expected just to get the cowl closed, probably caused by the cold weather. And after the idle run at the gate, the HIGH STAGE light illuminated again.
The mechanics were understandably upset that their 6 hour effort was for nothing. Since we were now out of duty time, they would have to take the airplane out of service and they could look at what else could be causing the problem.
I dreaded walking back to the gate area to explain our situation to some of the passengers, a few of whom I’d actually got to know as the hours passed. I know I’d be furious if I were them. Waiting 11 hours only to find out they’d have to try it again the next day had to be torturous.
Passengers were given hotel and meal vouchers and were told to come back tomorrow morning for a 9:30 a.m. departure. We figured a new crew would be called out to cover that trip, but surprisingly we were put up in a Boston hotel so that we could be given the minimum ten hours of rest before coming out the next morning to take our frustrated passengers in a different airplane to San Juan.
I went to a computer at another gate to find out what was happening to our schedule. Coincidently, the 767 that had been fixed next to our gate also ran into crew legality problems, causing another cancellation. So we fielded questions from a few of their passengers who were just receiving their hotel vouchers.
The captain and I jumped in the hotel van with a couple who had left Chicago that morning in a snow storm, before arriving in Boston to continue with us to San Juan. The new bride was nearly in tears at the thought of missing their cruise. But if everything went smoothly, we could still ge
t them there the next day before the 8 p.m. departure of their ship.
Naturally, the next morning a nor’easter hit the New England area and we’d need to be de-iced. After arriving at the gate, we discovered that our flight had rescheduled for a departure an hour and a half later at 11 a.m.
I thought of the newlyweds as well as others with 4 p.m. cruise ship check-ins. These passengers did everything right. They planned their arrival the day before the ship left, allowing for plenty of time in case of a delay in their flight. And yet they still might not make it.
We waited just over an hour for an airplane next to us to fully de-ice. The runway was opening and closing as plows were trying to keep up with the heavy snowfall. We needed to be de-iced with a two step de-ice/anti-ice process that would take 40 minutes to complete.
Twenty-five hours after we were originally supposed to depart, the de-ice crew came on the radio.
“Captain, prepare your aircraft for de-icing,” said the de-icer.
I turned off the air conditioning and engine bleed air, which prevents the sweet maple-syrup smelling de-ice fluid from entering the cabin.
There was nothing left to do but wait for the two trucks to de-ice our wings and tail. I spent the time snapping pictures to share with you, of course.
An hour later, we called for clearance to taxi.
“Did you pick up your clearance?” the ground controller asked.
“Yeah, we got it via PDC (the ACARS box).” I said.
“Well, we don’t have anything on you. You’ll need to re-file it.” The controller responded.
Oh, no. Our IFR clearance with ATC was good for a two hour period. We exceeded that by just a few minutes, which would require our dispatch to re-enter our flight plan information and send it to the FAA controllers.
I looked up the frequency to contact our dispatch while kicking myself for not thinking of this earlier.
Thankfully, after less than 3 minutes, our dispatcher had the new flight plan in the system. The controller could then let us taxi.
If our taxi time exceeded between 40 minutes to 1 hour and 20 minutes, depending on the snowfall intensity, we’d need to be de-iced again. Fortunately, the taxi was very short with only one airplane ahead of us. We were finally on our way.
We were scheduled to arrive in San Juan 30 minutes past the time our return deadhead flight was to depart. But there was still a chance that the deadhead flight would be late, since it had also come out of Boston that morning before flying to St. Thomas and then San Juan.
We just might make it, I thought. Once we were within 200 miles of San Juan, I called our company on the radio. I was dying to know if we’d be going home that day or if we had to stay the night in San Juan. The one-day trip had already turned into two, and I really didn’t want it to become a three-day trip.
“The flight to Boston has just arrived. You should be able to make it,” said our operations agent on the island. What a relief. Things were looking up.
Moments later, the agent called back. “It looks like you’ll all make it on the flight back to Boston tonight, but the co-pilot has been reassigned to fly to Miami.”
This job has its moments, and at some point, when things get turned so far upside down, and schedules are thrown out the window, you just have to laugh–it’s the only thing left to do.
I keyed the mic and said, “Ahh, you’re breaking up. Can’t hear you at all.”
We landed in San Juan at 6 p.m. I’m not sure if that was enough time for the newlyweds to make their 8 p.m. cruise, or how the other passengers did, but I sure hope it worked out for some of them. A first class passenger gave me an employee recognition card, which, under the circumstances was a nice thing for him to do.
A few hours later, I met up with another captain, a check airman who had also been reassigned to fly this trip from San Juan to Miami. Apparently the flight from Hartford had also left late enough that the cockpit crew couldn’t continue, so they used us to work the Miami flight. The captain I was flying with was from Sweden, and he kept me entertained with some great stories all the way to Florida.
I stayed the night in Miami before getting on the first flight back to Boston the next morning. Fortunately, they had a first class seat available.
After a few minutes had passed from our departure time, the captain got on the PA and said, “Ladies and gentleman, we have a problem with our hydraulic system that’s going to require a part brought over from the hangar. Since we’re not going to have air conditioning, we’d like to ask you to get off the airplane until we can get this problem resolved.”
I just smiled. I was sure it was payback for the past twelve months worth of mostly smooth flights with minimal delays and very reliable airplanes.
Luckily, just two hours later, we were on our way home to Boston. All I had to do was enjoy the view from the passenger window…