Lots of things conspire to delay an airliner's departure from the gate. For AVweb's fictional CEO of the Cockpit, recent gate delays were merely the end of a string of challenges served up by Sin City.
August 2, 2003
"You should write a book," said Jenny, our senior flight attendant for today, who was standing behind the center console of our airplane.
She was no doubt referring to the fact that so far today not much had gone right and we could fill at least a romance-novel-sized tome about our trials and tribulations up to this point.
What trials? First there was a gunfight in the hotel's parking lot the night before, meaning we got very little sleep. The van to the airport was late, and then we all got pretty much strip-searched by security. Finally we had to wait 20 minutes so the gate agent could let us on our own airplane after we proved to him that we were us by showing our company IDs.
Not that we didn't have a few good times on the layover. I myself had scored a few hundred bucks on the "Wheel of Fortune" slot machine and Jenny got to see the Blue Man Group.
I stared forlornly out of the left-hand windshield onto the wet ramp, looking in vain for the mechanic that the ramp control guy promised us. We had come on the airplane this morning in Las Vegas full of piss and vinegar, ready to take on the world and fly this thing to Los Angeles and points beyond, only to be stopped in our tracks by a little 8-by-10-inch piece of red metal.
The metal plate -- hung by a chain over the throttles like a dental patient's spit rag -- was the most feared and respected of all aircraft placards. It was a "do not touch anything" message, telling us that not only was the airplane broken but also that mechanics were working on it, and if we touched the wrong switch we stood the chance of sending one of them to maintenance heaven.
I sat in my seat just long enough to open my flight bag. I didn't even plug in my headset, even though I'm sure it wouldn't hurt anybody if I did. Without specific information from the mechanic we didn't dare touch a single switch. What if, for example, we decided it was OK to power an electrical buss, only to find that it was the one that the mechanic was handling? Nobody wants anyone to get hurt -- and more important than that -- I want to make sure that I am never the one that sizzle-sears a mechanic to a panel or crushes him in a gear door. A sentiment that I'm sure they all appreciate.
"So, how long are we looking at for a delay?" asked Jenny. "Should I tell the agent to hold off on boarding the people?"
The Vagaries of the Electron
Yeah, that's a good idea, I said. Let me find out exactly what's going on before we load the cattle. If it is an electrical problem or a hydraulic thing, we could be looking at some fumes in the cabin or maybe a lack of air conditioning for while. You haven't seen a mechanic wandering around have you?
"I have," said Brian, this week's co-pilot. "He has the logbook and took it downstairs. He mentioned something about a battery charger and battery change in progress and said it would be about a half an hour."
A sick charger on an airliner is a big deal because so much of the operation of a jet relies on electrons, and in an emergency a good battery is the difference between life and death because it is the last power source for backup instruments.
During my couple-of-year tour flying co-king on the Boeing 777, the wily electron took on a whole new meaning because the very control of the airplane literally depended on it. There was a plethora of backups to provide power to the flight controls, but if everything turned to crap the only manual flight-control backup that I remember was one spoiler on one wing. Basically, a total meltdown of the power and all the backup power sources on that airplane meant that you were about to re-enter the food chain -- either as sushi if you were over the big ocean or as a tidbit for a vulture if over land.
Of course, if they had decided to put manual flight-control backups into an airplane the size of a 777, the weight gain would have been tremendous and pointless anyway. I think the electrical way they do things on that airplane is far superior and more reliable than the old "manually actuated hydraulics" the 727 had.
The electrical system on the MD-88 and the DC-9 wasn't such a big deal in terms of flight controls because they were all, more or less, manual anyway. The battery charger and battery (actually two batteries) on that airplane were important because they powered emergency AC and DC if all of your generators went kaput. If your battery charger wasn't working and you didn't notice your run-down battery, it could cost you your last few years on planet earth because all the instruments would be useless quicker than you expected.
I can't remember how important the battery was on the DC-8 or the 727. I must have been asleep through those classes or it was so long ago that I've replace the memories of those systems in my brain with recordings of Bay Watch episodes or the words to an old rock song ...
A Few Small Repairs, He Said
"Ah-hem ..." said the mechanic, who was standing behind my seat and today had the displeasure of listening to one of my lectures but didn't have the guts to stop me until I paused for breath.
"While we were fiddling around with the battery charger, we happened to notice that your left front tire on your right main needs changing. You're legal to take it for two more landings, but since we're on delay anyway we'll change it before you leave if it's OK with you."
Good idea. Jenny, could you tell the agent it is okay to board the folks? We'll make sure an air conditioning hose is attached and we'll save some time later when we're ready to boogie. We can board with the right side jacked up a little can't we?
"Yup" said the mechanic and with that, he was gone.
I wasn't so sure that it was actually legal, but by the time we looked it up they'd have the tire changed anyway. Legally, I wonder if the right side over-wing exits and slides would "officially work" with that side jacked up.
I didn't see it as a safety problem though, because if the airplane had to be evacuated I'm sure the mechanics would lower the plane off the jacks and three out of four tires would support that side anyway, plus they only raise the airplane a few inches.
Eager to Push
The intercom chimed and I answered a call from the tug driver who thought we were only a few minutes from pushback and was wondering if he could pull the external power cord and the air conditioning hose that was just plugged in.
"Can we pull the plugs?" he asked.
Nope, we can't start the APU for a while because it takes two batteries to get it going and one of them is being replaced so we need to wait for a bit. Besides, they are working on the airplane for a while. How about I call the ramp radio when we need you guys so you don't have to hang around in the rain?
"Good deal," he said and was gone, heading for the air-conditioned and dry break room with his crew.
I can't blame him for asking about the power cord. Routine is a hard thing to break and even though he probably should have noticed the mechanic's legs hanging out of the airplane's "E&E" door just aft of the nose wheel, and even though he probably also should have noticed the fact that the right side of the airplane was up on jacks and one of our wheels was missing, I would never tell him.
Jenny was back as the ongoing saga of "Will we ever leave for Los Angeles?" continued.
"Boss, we may have a problem with one of the passengers," she began. "The guy in 23C is pretty drunk and the gate agent has already talked to him about his behavior."
But the agent boarded him anyway ... I added.
"Yeah, the agent says he thinks the guy is so drunk that he'll probably sleep all the way ..."
OK, I better have a word with the agent. Could you ask him to come on up, or better yet, I'll meet him in the jetway out of passenger earshot.
I left and came back to the cockpit in only a few minutes. Brian was curious: "How did it turn out?"
According to our agent, the passenger in question had already been denied boarding on two previous flights because he was sloshed. The agent was tired of dealing with him and thought he might get him out of town on our flight. While I have nothing against the agent trying to get rid of him, I refused to carry the guy and we're having him removed. Maybe he can go home or to a motel and sleep it off. I've always had a policy of not taking drunks on flights. The problems only get worse with altitude and I don't want him throwing up on whoever has to sit next to him.
The agent, by end of my explanation, was up in the cockpit with the final paperwork, standing behind my seat.
"Sorry about that," he started. "He had a death in the family and was trying to get home after the funeral."
I understand, and even sympathize, but a few years ago I had a drunk on board who went nuts in the back and it was very ugly. Plus, look at the bright side -- we may have saved this guy's life. He probably would have gotten off of our flight at his home base and tried to drive home. Is there anybody traveling with him that can take care of him?
"No, but he had a phone number of his sister in his pocket. We called her and she is coming out to take him home for the night. Oh yeah, I forgot to give you this earlier."
Not running for "Agent of the Month" are we? It was a hazmat form that I should have gotten sooner. Of course, I have it now, so "no harm, no foul." It was only some dry ice in bin three, so I took it.
It Ain't Begun Until It's Begun
We felt the bump of the main gear touching the ramp just as we heard the mechanic's footfalls on the jet way. Our battery charger and battery replaced, our new tire on the hub and our book signed off, we were finally ready to push for LAX.
Brian twirled the knob on the radio to call for pushback and was greeted with "Stand by, there is a ground stop for all traffic headed to Los Angeles. There will be an update at 1900Z, time now 1730Z."
Some days in the airline world it is better to just stay in the layover motel with the blankets over your head. OK, fine ... let's make a PA to the folks and then see if we can find a movie to run in the back to keep them happy. Nobody gets off the plane unless they are dying because these ground stops have a way of being canceled early.
Hell, I've been "captaining" for over an hour and we haven't even pushed back or begun to get paid yet.
Brian didn't hear me. I was by myself because both he and Jenny had already left to get some coffee and a paper.