Cockpit Chronicles: A Landing Fit For A King

Harriet Baskas from StuckatTheAirport.com asked a few of us to identify the “scariest airports” as seen through the eyes of pilots. I gave her a list of “challenging” airports instead. I told her about New York’s LaGuardia and Washington, D.C.’s Reagan airports but I wondered if I should have mentioned Eek or Nightmute, two of my personal favorites from flying in Alaska, that attract only a few local travelers.

In the end, LaGuardia, Reagan and Orange County, in Santa Ana, California, made the cut in her article. I couldn’t really disagree with the choices. All three are short runways and each one has at least one unique departure or arrival procedure that requires a bit of piloting skill.

But do pilots worry, or get scared when flying into these places? I haven’t seen any evidence to support that. Do we feel some pressure? Sure.

A recent LaGuardia landing is a good example. Since finishing my initial operating experience (IOE) as a new captain on the MD-80, I hadn’t flown into LaGuardia for over a month. I managed to get two or three landings there with the instructor giving me the IOE training, but most of my subsequent trips had been out of Newark, another airport that’s part of my home base.

Finally, after finishing a three-day trip with layovers in Cleveland and Albuquerque, I’d get my first landing back at the USS LaGuardia. We joke about its short length, but it really isn’t much worse than the shortest runway in Boston, Chicago or San Diego. And as a co-pilot, I had flown into LGA many times. So why the pressure?

It might come as a surprise to some, but most pilots don’t constantly think about the responsibility that comes with flying a planeload of passengers while they’re flying. I suppose it’s because, in a selfish way, a passenger’s safety is no more important than my own, and this tends to be enough to ensure that the airplane and its occupants are flown in a safe way.

But I do have one recurring thought that goes through my mind during the more challenging times. Because of the hundreds of accident reports we’ve read that never fail to leave an impression, a little voice in my head can often be heard critiquing every decision or action.

And especially when things begin to go wrong on a flight, either mechanically, or because of weather or poor decision-making, that little voice in your head begins to craft your own accident report. And when you start hearing excerpts in your head, such as “captain elected to take off from the shorter, ice-covered runway to save time as the flight had been delayed” you tend to step back and re-think your decisions.

During my first LaGuardia landing as a captain, these type of thoughts were going through my head. Nothing was out of the ordinary – the weather was clear and while it was dark, the visibility was excellent.

But this time, it wasn’t an NTSB accident report that I was hearing; it was a newspaper headline because that night I had royalty aboard the flight.Jerry Lewis was flying in seat 2F. I could already hear not only the accident report, but the newspaper headlines. “The King of Comedy, involved in airline accident – new captain making his first landing into short New York runway.”

A double-blink and a glance over at my co-pilot, Mark, quickly brought me back into the present situation. I had briefed Mark on the turn-off point I intended to use, the approach we’d be flying, and the final flaps we’d select (all of them, or 40 degrees). In my mind the touchdown point was visualized, and we were now slowed to our approach speed. Really, what could go wrong?

“Lewis, who was returning from a performance in Las Vegas, had connected in Chicago for the doomed flight back to LaGuardia.”

Oh, stop it. This is just another landing. OK, so yes, there was a bit of a crosswind at 14 knots, but that’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

“50, 40, 30, 20, 10 …” The electronic radio altimeter called out as we crossed over from water to runway, punctuated by a nice ‘thunk.’ It wasn’t a roll-it-on-greaser, but the landing was on speed and right at the touchdown point at about 1,000 feet down the 7,000-foot runway, leaving more than a mile to slow down smoothly.

After the flight, I smiled at how easy it was to think up dreadful headlines on the approach, which was especially ironic, since I struggle to put a title on my “Cockpit Chronicles” posts for Gadling.

As we were finishing up the parking checklist, Mr. Lewis poked his head inside the door and said, “Thanks for the great flight, guys.”

Some landings you’ll never forget, and this was just one of them.

[Photo credit: Kent Wien]

Related: Kent’s favorite and least favorite runways.

Cockpit Chronicles” takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as a captain on the MD-80 based in New York. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the “Cockpit Chronicles” Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Bad Flight Saved By Airline Crew, New Laws, Amiable Travelers

flight 108

Last weekend, United Airlines Flight 108 from Newark, New Jersey, to Edinburgh, Scotland, put 2011’s Airline Passenger Bill of Rights to the test. It was not planned that way; we did not set out to see if the new regulations would kick in to help in a bad situation. But when things went wrong, rules established by the bill kept a bad scene from becoming a total disaster. I was on board and lived to tell about it.

The first leg of our travel plan on United Airlines took us through bad weather from Orlando (MCO) to Newark (EWR) rather smoothly, arriving a few minutes late at 8:15 p.m. On landing, a text from my FlightTrack Pro iPhone app informed me that our next flight, from EWR to Edinburgh, Scotland (EDI), scheduled to leave at 9:55 p.m., would be delayed until 12 p.m.

“Surely they mean 12 a.m., just a little late, not 12 p.m.,” I said out loud with the comment echoed by other passengers, also checking their phones after landing. But p.m. it was, so put up in a hotel we were – the cheesy Ramada Inn Airport hotel – along with carry-on luggage and food vouchers for dinner and breakfast.

Going back to the Newark airport the next day – a few hours early as good airline passengers on international flights do – we found a further delay for more maintenance, pushing departure to 1 p.m. Soon though, the situation improved. The flight was moved back to 12 p.m. and boarding the international flight, a process that can take some time, finally began.flightWith boarding completed, the flight crew, who had also been ready to go since the night before, prepared the cabin and off we went – all of about two football fields in distance.

Newark airport normally has two operating runways. Today that was one working runway as the other was undergoing maintenance, placing us last in a line behind 15 planes.

A timely announcement produced some unanimous moans and groans from passengers. “Oh well, what can we do but sit here and wait.”

By the time we made it to number seven, almost an hour later, we had burned about 10,000 pounds of fuel, according to the flight crew. That’s so much fuel that we had to leave the takeoff queue, return to what the crew onboard called “the ballpark” and refuel.

“Not a big problem, we sure did not want to run out of gas crossing the Atlantic,” I thought, echoing the mood of the other passengers on board. To expedite the process, we stayed on the aircraft, avoiding a repeat of the time-consuming international flight boarding process.

But by the time fueling was complete, we were on the verge of violating part of that new passenger rights bill, which established a three-hour cumulative time limit for such delays. This is a big deal to the airlines, if for no other reason than the fact that they can be fined $17,000 per passenger if they don’t comply.

By law, at that three-hour mark, airlines are required to provide passengers on a delayed, grounded aircraft like ours with food, water, restrooms, ventilation and medical services, among other provisions.

Over the aircraft loudspeaker, the call was made by Rick Chase, International Service Manager, that if anyone wanted off the aircraft, to let the crew know and they would make it happen. Two passengers wanted off so we pulled out of the takeoff queue and waited for ground crew to come fetch them.

Back in the queue for take off after 4 p.m., it was looking like we were going to make it off the ground after all. Then a weather concern stopped the countdown.

Thunderstorms directly in our planned flight path were going to be a problem. United Airlines operations people, we were told, scrambled to file a new flight plan.

Again came the grumbles of passengers but no one wanted to be hit by lightning then plunge into the Atlantic. At about that same time, someone at United Airlines operations remembered that this particular aircraft had never flown this international route before.

Apparently, by law, custom or just an abundance of caution, a qualified mechanic must be on board when that happens, we were told. Rumor had it that due to cutbacks caused by the Continental and United Airlines merger, there were none available.

This time we did not go back to the ballpark but rather just stopped where we were and waited for the revised flight plan and a mechanic. At a little after 5 p.m., United Airlines Flight 108 finally took off, racking up a total of over 17 hours delay.

The whole situation was just bad news all around. A big part of the enduring memory though will be how very well the onboard flight crew handled the situation. Keeping us informed every step of the way, caring for our individual concerns and making the most out of a bad situation far exceeded the requirements of the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.

They took what could have turned into a very nasty situation and transformed it into a “let’s all get together for a reunion” sort of thing. To the credit of United Airlines, before we got off the aircraft we were asked to visit UnitedAirlines.com/appreciation where the airline put their money where their mouth is, offering all passengers on the flight compensation for their time and inconvenience. While the package was customized for each passenger, some included a voucher for domestic travel within a year ranging from $400 to $2000, a 20 to 50 percent discount for a future international flight, or between 15,000 and 50,000 additional frequent flier miles.

It was more of a “it’s the thought that counts” sort of offer at the time, but I bet that after thinking about the situation for a while and how very well the flight crew handled it, that most passengers will indeed give United Airlines another try.

United Airlines 'Computer Glitch' Disrupts Travel


[Photo- Chris Owen]

Virgin Atlantic to open new clubhouse at JFK in March

Virgin atlanticA new, larger, better Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse for upper-class passengers is scheduled to open at New York’s Kennedy Airport in early March.

The new clubhouse “will create an unique experience for our passengers to complement our flagship Clubhouse and Revivals Lounge at London Heathrow Terminal 3,” Chris Rossi, Virgin Atlantic’s senior vice president for North America told TravelWeekly.

The current JFK clubhouse is located on the departure level in Terminal 4, prior to security. The new facility will be positioned near the gates Virgin Atlantic uses in Terminal 4.

The 10,000-square-foot facility will be larger than the flagship clubhouse at London’s Heathrow airport by about 2,000 square feet.Virgin’s Clubhouses are located at Heathrow, Gatwick, Newark, Washington, Boston, Johannesburg, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Rated the best airline lounge in the world, TipsForTravelers says “Virgin Atlantic’s vision is to create an airline that people love to fly, and they add to that that they want to have some fun doing it.


Virgin America Name Plane After Steve Jobs



Flickr photo by Deanster1983

Security breach sticks passengers in NJ for extra six hours

Imagine the joys of spending an extra six hours in Newark, NJ. So, how pissed would you be at the one guy responsible? Now, multiply that by all the people in Newark Liberty International Airport. That’s a lot of anger.

At 5:30 PM on Sunday, a passenger walked the wrong way through the exit at the security checkpoint in Terminal C. He was stopped while the authorities reviewed surveillance tapes in an attempt to discern his identity.

Meanwhile, passengers were kicked from the secure area of the terminal and required to go through security again. Just imagine the length of those lines! After a thorough search of the terminal, the checkpoints opened at around 11:45 PM

One passenger wasn’t upset about the delay but did express irritation over the lack of organization in the terminal, a fair assessment, really. While I’d be angry at the passenger who bypassed security, I’d also be pretty furious at the security guards for letting the situation happen at all.

The security checkpoints reopened approximately 15 minutes before enhanced security measures took effect.

[Photo by The Consumerist via Flickr]

Newark Mayor goes head to head with Conan O’Brien over joke about city

Conan O’Brien recently made a crack about the city of Newark, New Jersey, on The Tonight Show. But it seems the city’s Mayor, Cory Booker, didn’t find it very funny.

“The Mayor of Newark, NJ, wants to set up a citywide program to improve residents’ health. The health care program would consist of a bus ticket out of Newark,” O’Brien said. Ouch.

The Mayor handled it well though, responding with a YouTube video challenging Conan’s perceptions of the city. “You fail to understand our city is one of the fastest growing cities in the Northeast,” he said. He went on to detail the many improvement made to the city, one that he called “a city on the rise.” He then offered a glimpse of resident reactions to Conan’s crack, including the ego-crushing query of one woman: “Who’s Conan O’Brien?”

With a slight grin, Mayor Booker told Conan he was officially on the Newark Airport’s “no fly list” and closed with “Try JFK, buddy.”

Of course, Conan had to fire back.

He said the ban was no problem; he could easily get to Newark through the sewer system, because, “Everyone knows, all sewer pipes lead to Newark.” He invited the Mayor to come on his show to settle things like “men of honor”, adding that the studio was just five minutes from the Burbank Internatonal Airport. . . which the Mayor was now, of course, banned from.

In response to Conan’s egging, Booker posted another video. This time, he’s calling for reinforcements, saying that he has 566 municipalites backing him because “we in New Jersey roll hard, we roll strong, and we roll together.” And Booker didn’t stop there. He says he’s reached out Newark’s Sister Cities all over the world, which means Conan’s not just banned from the entire state of New Jersey, but also from cities in places like Ghana and even Conan’s own ancestral home of Ireland. “CoCo can’t go go,” the Mayor taunts.

He does offer to come on The Tonight Show show to settle the dispute, but only if Conan will first pay a visit to Newark.

Your move, Conan.