Airline Captains Most Challenging Day (Part 3 of 3)

"This was a day that pushed my skills and capacity as both a Commander and a human being to the limit. It consisted of 3 main events, the 3rd of which is detailed here - Flight Planning Laws, Discretion Limits & Passenger Management!"

This was a day that pushed my skills and capacity as both a Commander and a human being to the limit. It consisted of 3 main events, the third of which is discussed here. Our medical return to stand in part 1 can be found here, and our turbulence encounter followed by a double diversion can be read here.

 Part 3 – Flight Planning Laws, Discretion Limits & Passenger Management!

So far today, I’d had a last minute change on my roster as I arrived at the airport, to fly to a destination I’d never even heard of. We’d made it as far as the departure runway in London before needing to return to stand due to a medical situation onboard the aircraft. We’d dipped into horrendous turbulence trying to get into Rijeka and initially commenced a diversion to Venice. All hell was breaking loose there so we’d diverted to Rimini.

As we taxied onto the apron after touching down in Rimini, adrenaline still very much pumping, we were the only aircraft there. Perfect! Our plan was to refuel, wait for the weather to clear at Rijeka, and make the short hop over to our intended destination, before then returning back to London. Looking at our more accurate weather radar on our Ipads now (no internet connection for us in the air), it looked like there would be a large gap of clear weather at destination in around 40 minutes time.

3 hours later however, we still found ourselves sat on the tarmac at Rijeka without any fuel. It was easily the most stressful 3 hours of my life to date. It consisted of me non-stop liaising with our operations team, flight planning team, crewing and the airport authorities both onboard the aircraft and in their office within the terminal. On top of this, I was managing an entire aircraft of passengers and our 5 crew members. From the moment we parked the aircraft in Rimini to the moment we departed, I was barely able to catch a breath in between managing and making time pressured decisions.

Although the crew were all superstars that day, a few of them were very new, including the FO who was fresh out of training. I really felt the weight of the role on my shoulders.

Refueling

The airport authorities were initially refusing to refuel the aircraft with passengers onboard without consent from our head of operations department to do so. Rather than disembarking all our passengers who quite frankly had been through enough today already, I called our operations team who were happy to provide the electronic signature over email directly to the Rimini office to enable us to fuel with pax on. The approval process should have taken a matter of minutes. Assuming this would be simple was my first mistake.

Initially the wrong PDF was sent to our ops department by Rimini so after thinking the process was completed once it had been signed & sent back, we had to start again with the actual document. Then the first signature sent back wasn’t in the right place according to the airport authorities. Then it was re-done but other bits weren’t filled out sufficiently to the airports authority standards. Each time there was something else incorrect.  

Due to language barriers and multiple people now in this communication chain, each issue above took 30 minutes to figure out the source and correct each time. This to & froing went on for over 2 hours.

In hindsight, it would have been much faster to disembark everyone, but each time there was an issue, it sounded like it would be quicker to sort out the signature issue than to get everyone off the aircraft and back on.

Passengers

Managing passengers is a large part of the Command role, and today was no different. We understandably had multiple distressed passengers. They’d just been through the worst turbulence many of them had ever experienced. They’d also just been through a diversion, and a medical return to stand in London.

Everyone was now late, frustrated, claustrophobic and getting hungry.

Whilst managing all the other moving parts, I was making a real effort to check in with the passengers. Despite being on the phone between departments almost continuously for 3 hours trying to sort out the above issue, I made myself as visible as possible to the passengers.

I did regular PA’s from the front of the cabin updating everyone on the situation and invited them into the flightdeck to speak with the FO or myself when I was free. I found walking around with the Windy.com weather radar on my Ipad and showing passengers the weather was now clearing from Rijeka, seemed to comfort them.

There were a few passengers so frightened from the turbulence that they were in tears. I invited all of them separately into the flightdeck and had them sit on my seat whilst I knelt down, calmly reassuring them and answering any questions they had. It definitely seemed to help them.

We also had passengers wanting to disembark the aircraft as It was quicker for them to get to their destination if they got off here. Whilst we can’t legally stop them, I had to do my best to persuade them to stay on board. If they disembarked, it means we’d need a ground crew to open up the hold to get their bags off. This can be extremely time consuming and prevented us from continuing the day.

Flight planning

The initially agreed plan with Ops was to continue to Rimini. Around 2 hours into the refuel issue, our operations department called me and said once we’d go fuel they’d like me to bring the aircraft back to Gatwick, from Rimini, with all the passengers on board. The plan would be to overnight them in Gatwick and fly them down tomorrow as they weren’t optimistic we’d be able to land in Rijeka today, and they needed the aircraft back that evening.

When I questioned the reason for their lack of optimism, I found out they were also looking at the Windy.com radar and disagreed the weather was going to clear in time.  

I disagreed. I was confident that if we could get the fuel on, we could get to Rijeka and back to London today. I suggested putting enough fuel on to attempt Rijeka, and if worst case we couldn’t get in, we flew straight back to Gatwick. I thought it was a fair compromise, at least we would have given the passengers the best chance possible. A quick performance check my ipad showed we could take this much fuel and still safely land in Rimini if we did get in.

This was rejected due to a flight planning issue regarding how far away your flight plan ‘alternates’ have to be. London was too far away to be a legal alternate for our new Rijeka flight plan. We’d need to elect a closer airport and land there before continuing to London in order to keep it legal. This seemed ludacris but it was the law.

Decision time; Concede to the company’s initial wish and head back to Gatwick as soon as we fueled up. Or, attempt to land in Rijeka, knowing that if we couldn’t get in, we’d have to land in Venice (our new alternate, now clear of weather) before considering getting back to London.

I took a calculated risk and told the company I wanted to try the second option. After what these passengers had been through today, I wanted to do everything possible to get them to the destination rather than feeling like I was giving up by flying them back to Gatwick.

I also had a first; A passenger handing me notes of where he thinks we should fly to and why. In this case it was Pulia, because he knew they have ground handling there and it’s a short drive from Rijeka. I thanked him for it, but let him know I’d already suggested that one to our operations department but didn’t want us landing there due to a company ground contract issue.


Weather

Over the 3 hours, a huge storm cell that had been very slowly moving towards Rimini from the West. It had been so far away initially that it wasn’t an issue. Still sat with no fuel, the clouds now began to loom over the airfield, as the airport staff were noting.

If we were still sat on the ground when it was fully overhead, we’d be unable to refuel due to the lightning and likely unable to depart in it anyway. I also wouldn’t want to disembark the passengers in torrential rain if we still couldn’t get the approval to fuel with them onboard. Thankfully, it was directly behind the aircraft which meant the passengers couldn’t see it, yet.

Even more time pressure now. With the weather approaching and the paperwork issue going round in circles, I took it upon myself to walk into the airport office and demand the issue be resolved within the next 5 minutes, or we’d disembark. I refused to leave the office until we either had the approval to refuel, or we had clearance to take the passengers into the terminal. It worked!

After a quick PA from the front waving the now printed and signed document to the cheery passengers, I dove into the flightdeck to do our final preparation so we could depart the second the fueling was done. The wind was starting to pick up and the cell was now towering over the field, just a mile to the West.

By the time we’d got to the hold point, the weather was really turning. The rain hadn’t hit us yet but storm cell was now drifting into our departure path. As we backtracked the runway, I asked ATC for an immediate turn to the East after departure to prevent us flying into it. Approved. I then did a PA to the passengers letting them know it may be a little bumpy for a few second after takeoff as we skim the side of the cell. I felt guilty as I had promised no more turbulence, however if we didn’t go now, we wouldn’t be going at all.

As planned, we managed to just avoid the cell due to the early turn and made the quick trip over to Rijeka. The touchdown in Rijeka felt firmer than I anticipated, despite taking account for the heavy fuel load we had by flaring marginally earlier than usual. The reason for this became clear only upon reflection the day after. For now, I was fully focused on a quick turnaround.

Rijeka

As soon as we parked on stand, I was back on the phone to our crewing department. As much as I would have loved to have said goodbye to all our passengers, I knew we were extremely tight on hours to get back to London legally and I wanted to crosscheck my calculations with crewing. I managed to say goodbye to a few and had some pop their head into the flightdeck to thank us personally and shake our hands. The gentleman and his family from the medical that morning (seemed like days ago by now) showed their appreciation which was a nice feeling.

Crewing and I came to the same conclusion; To get back to London, we’d have to use my discretion to extend our maximum FDP (Flight Duty Period) by the full 2-hour limit. We had to be wheels up within 45 minutes or we’d end up over that limit in London. We were still disembarking so it was going to be tight even if everything went exactly to plan.

Obviously, I had to also check that the crew were happy and safe to go into discretion in the first place. I walked down the plane once the pax had disembarked and checked in with each crew member individually, explained the situation and asked how they were feeling. They were all on board with the idea of getting home that day.

I then ran down to the ramp agent to introduce myself & explain the situation. She was confident she could have us boarded & pushed back in 30 minutes.

I jumped back in the flightdeck to set up for the flight home. Just as the crew notified me they were happy to start boarding, the ramp agent informed me the water & waste truck had just broken down whilst attaching itself to our aircraft!

Due to the 3 hours on the ground in Rimini, the onboard toilet tanks were completely full, and our water tanks empty. We knew we couldn’t fly back to London without these facilities. The mood between the crew immediately changed. It felt like the final nail in the coffin and two of them seemed resigned to us spending the night in Rijeka.

I was still determined to give it all we had. I generated our current options. I ran down to see the issue firsthand and get an estimation of time to fix. They believed they could fix it in a few minutes, if they couldn’t, they were unsure if they could get hold of another one.

Next decision: Do we board now, in the hope that the truck will get fixed, or wait until it’s fixed before boarding? If we wait, we may end up missing our latest wheels up time if it takes longer than 5 minutes to fix. If we board and it doesn’t get fixed, our poor crew who have been through enough today will have to face telling a whole plane load of passengers to get off.

For me here, the crew came first. They’d been through enough today. I said we wouldn’t board until we knew we had a serviceable truck, asking the airport staff to also check if there were any more available anywhere on the airport. There weren’t, but thankfully the truck was fixed bang on 5 minutes later. 2 hours later we touched down back into London just minutes inside our absolute extended legal limit.

I was grateful we had a superb crew that day along with some very understanding passengers. On the walk back to my car I called our operations department and thanked all of them but specifically the member who I’d spent multiple hours on the phone to whilst in Rijeka that day. He said pilots usually never call to follow up after a messy day like that, so was genuinely touched that I had. I knew the day wouldn’t have been possible without the teamwork and especially from the guys and girls back at HQ in the various departments so I think it’s always nice to put that effort in & thank them.

Getting back into my car at the end of that day, I’ve never felt so depleted. When I closed the car door I realized that was the first time all day that I was alone and without someone needing something from me. It was not only the longest day of my career, but also the most challenging.

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