Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the United States, which means today is one of the busiest travel days of the year. In fact, this post will go live as I am 30,000 feet above New England on my way home for Thanksgiving.
We’re all familiar with the headlines declaring travel-mageddon around major holidays. Nightmare scenarios where passengers are stranded in airports for days due to inclement weather. System failures grounding entire fleets of jets. Air traffic snarls delaying flights for hours along busy routes.
Despite the horror stories, most of us are able to make it home on busy travel days without significant delays. I’ve learned that this does not happen merely by happenstance – it takes a village to get a flight off the ground and safely to its destination.
My friend Donnie, a Boeing 757/767 pilot at a major U.S.-based airline, was kind enough to let me pick his brain recently on all things aviation. Here are some edited excerpts from our conversation about the planning and logistics that go into your holiday flights.
Marissa (M): I find the idea of being a pilot fascinating, and I think in some ways it stems from my fear of flying. Sometimes I’m terrified of flying, and sometimes I absolutely love it and can’t tear my face from the window. Can you share a little bit about what influenced you to become a pilot?
Donnie (D): I’ve always been interested in flying. It’s something that mesmerizes me to this day, every time I get in the flight deck and take off for any destination. The thing that was always very fascinating to me is how you can wake up in one city, fly for three or four hours, and go to bed in a different city. That’s the magic of air travel. One of the coolest things about my job is I bring people together that go on vacations, I bring people together that travel for the holidays, and I’ve brought soldiers home as well as taken them to the war.
M: Does that give you a sense of responsibility to those travelers, in terms of keeping them safe and sound and giving them a good experience?
D: It does. It’s almost like an athlete focusing for a game. We have to focus every time we go up for a flight. We’re focused on completing the flight with safety in mind, first and foremost. But also other things that passengers value such as being on time at your destination and having a comfortable journey.
M: How much control do you have over those two or three things as a pilot?
D: When it comes to ensuring a comfortable ride, one of the things that goes into every flight is pre-flight planning. We work with aircraft dispatchers that are actually planning the flight for us, and they provide us with the weather. The weather package includes weather charts, as well as weather en route, and destination weather. A lot of times by looking at a weather chart you can tell the conditions at your departure airport, on your route of flight, and at your destination airport as well. That helps us plan and anticipate things such as thunderstorms, turbulence. Are we gonna be landing in a snowstorm or are we gonna be landing when it’s sunny and 85 degrees. Planning that is very essential.
Weather-wise, a lot of times we rely on reports from other aircraft – especially when it comes to things such as turbulence. Other aircraft that may be ahead of us along our same route of flight can relay any turbulence information or weather information to the aircraft that are behind on the same route. That helps us plan to get around areas of turbulence or thunderstorms. But the aircraft dispatchers do a wonderful job of planning the flight for us, assessing the overall weather picture, pointing our route to avoid any significant weather, and therefore giving passengers a comfortable experience.
When it comes to being on time, I think we do our best to be on time every single flight, but of course it takes a team to move a jet. It’s not just one factor that goes into making an airplane travel from A to B. Teamwork is essential to helping prepare a flight for an on-time departure, and as you can imagine, if one of those links is broken, that can lead to a delay.
M: I’ve been in situations at Reagan [Washington National Airport] where the flight will land on time, but we will be delayed getting to the gate. Just recently we landed in D.C. on the shuttle from Boston, and there had been another shuttle leaving an hour later. We landed early, and the ground crew wasn’t ready for our airplane. We sat there for an hour, during which time the other plane landed and got to their gate before us. It was very frustrating.
D: There’s a whole host of teams that play a part in helping the aircraft depart and arrive on time. We have anything from ramp agents to customer service agents, cargo loading agents, that all go into putting all the points together for a flight, whether it be passengers, cargo, or fueling the aircraft. If there is a breakdown in one of the links, it has an effect or impact.
A lot of times, for example, an aircraft may arrive early, and there may not be a gate available for it to park at yet just because airports have what are called departure slot times that the airlines have to reserve. If an aircraft arrives early and the plane has not departed the gate it’s supposed to park at, they may not have another immediate slot for the plane at the airport. So you end up waiting a little bit.
Another thing that’s interesting is that air traffic control plays a factor in delays. Especially in airports in the Northeast Corridor – Newark, LaGuardia, JFK. Those airports are all within 20 miles of each other, and you can probably imagine all of the traffic going into New York. It’s almost the same thing as being on the 405 or the 101 out in California during rush hour. The same thing happens at airports. They can only handle so much capacity, and there has to be a certain amount of spacing between the aircraft to ensure safety. A lot of times when the weather declines – for example, the clouds get too low or thunderstorms come into the area – that disrupts the air traffic as well because air traffic control has to put more spacing between aircraft in inclement weather.
M: Kind of like when you’re driving in the rain and you’re supposed to stay a few extra car lengths behind the next car in front of you.
M: It’s a wonder that all of this gets coordinated and executed as efficiently as it does, because it sounds like such a complex system. I can’t imagine being an air traffic controller at JFK where you have planes going to other airports, you’re trying to avoid collisions, you’re trying to manage traffic…
D: They do a really good job.
M: You can’t take your eye off the ball for even a minute.
D: To work at a facility like JFK compared to, say, Kansas City, you have to be trained in Oklahoma City. That’s the base for air traffic controller training. Based on your scores in training, you get placed at an airport. So, the people that do very very well can go to a place like JFK because they can handle the stress. Someone that may not do as well might end up at a smaller airport.
After they go through Oklahoma City, they go and train at the specific facility [airport]. It takes at least two more years to become fully certified as an air traffic controller.
M: It sounds like JFK and the Northeast Corridor are like the Harvard of air traffic control.
D: That’s a great way to describe it. They certainly have the best of the best controllers out there. It’s busy and they do a wonderful job handling all the traffic between those airports.
M: Do you ever just shoot the breeze with air traffic controllers when you’re up in the air?
D: Every once in a while. When it’s late at night when we run across the country, it’s quiet. The only airplanes you usually hear late at night are UPS and FedEx because they’re flying packages at night. So you hear them, or you may hear charters. For instance, basketball teams or football teams will fly late at night after a game.
M: Do you have a favorite route that you fly?
D: I really like doing New York to London. London is such a large city, and there’s so much to do there, so it never gets old to me. I also really like Hamburg, Germany. Hamburg is actually the wealthiest city in Germany and that relates back to the shipping industry. It’s a major port city.
M: Do you have a favorite memory so far from your time as a pilot?
D: The thing I’ll always remember – and this is when I realized my dream of becoming an international pilot was literally becoming true – is we were sitting on the runway, and as soon as we were cleared for takeoff to Munich, the captain handed over the flight controls to me and said, “Donnie, take us to Europe.” And I flew us over to Munich where we landed about seven hours later. It was just one of those moments when it clicks, and it was so cool.
I never knew so much planning and coordination went into every flight that leaves an airport. It’s a wonder that any of them make it off the ground on time!
I wish everyone safe and smooth travels this Thanksgiving. If you have a spare moment, leave a comment to let me know what you thought. And be sure to sign up for email alerts to be the first to catch the next part of our conversation, where we cover everyone’s favorite subject: turbulence!
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