November 3, 2011

Unpacked: Diversions

Welcome to the second edition of our new column, Unpacked, where we tackle topics that are top of mind to travelers on the first Thursday of each month (check out our first edition, Unpacked: Lightning Strikes). We planned on publishing a piece on turbulence this month, but that topic got diverted due to this week’s news (we figured you’d rather hear about diversions first). Next month we’ll share all you ever wanted to know and then some about turbulence, but for now, buckle your seat belts and be prepared to learn all about how airlines handle diversions.

Diversions are a part of operations for airlines. Flights can divert for any of a number of reasons, including a technical issue on the aircraft, a customer medical emergency, inclement weather, airport conditions like a power outage or a security issue.

If the diversion is due to a technical, security or medical issue, the pilot will work with his/her dispatcher and the local air traffic control facilities and will generally elect to divert to a nearby and suitable alternate airport. This may or may not be an airport where we have regularly scheduled operations. If it’s a medical or security incident, we prioritize coordinating with the proper authorities before making any decisions about deplaning or continuing on to the scheduled destination. If it’s a technical, weather or airport issue, there may be a need for customers to deplane while equipment is inspected or until the storm clears and the original destination airport is open for landing.

Several steps are taken before the plane even gets off the ground. We ensure that planes have extra fuel in case they have to land at an alternate airport if the route has a known weather system in its way. We also reach out to our potential diversion airports (from a list of surrounding cities) that are outside of the storm’s path and ask if they have the capabilities of handling a diversion (from customs agents, ground services, TSA staffing, gate/airstair and tow bar availability). We create a short list of alternative destination cities based on those conversations, which we can then direct our pilots to if/when a diversion becomes the operating plan.

Flight Crews and Dispatchers have one overriding goal: to land the aircraft safely. Safety is always number one priority, and sometimes the decision window is very small. If there’s time, we’ll reach out to our preferred diversion city to reconfirm that the station can handle us once we’re on the ground. Sometimes we’re told by a particular airport that, for whatever reason, they can no longer accept diversions and we then turn to our backup cities. Once we’ve landed, we rely on our crewmembers on the ground (if we have staff there) as well as the other airport crew to assist.

Because we know you’re asking the question, if all this work goes into minimizing impact to customers and crewmembers on weather-related diversions, what happened with the Hartford diversions this week? Unfortunately, we’re not able to share with you many specific details as they’re currently a matter of a DOT investigation. Check out our Chief Operating Officer’s response following last weekend’s events.

Be sure to catch up on our first edition, Unpacked: Lightning Strikes and check back on the first Thursday of next month for Unpacked: Turbulence. Thanks for landing here!

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