Despite LGKR on the Greek Island of Corfu being a small, singe runway airport with one tiny apron, having to enter the hold on approach there is ‘extremely rare’ according to our information charts.
On this day….that was not the case.
The Greeks decided to leave it until the last 5 minutes of our 3 hour flight from London to Corfu to inform us that there were going to be no parking spots free for our arrival time, which due to the airport layout, meant we couldn’t actually land.
Whilst this at first sounded alarming and was enough to get a little adrenaline pumping (& frustration rearing it’s head!), the controller softly reassured us we’d only have spend 10 minutes in the hold, by which point there would be a parking space available. Luckily we’d loaded enough surplus fuel to allow us to hold here for 10 minutes, but no more, unless we wanted to commit to the airport.
As we approached the 10 minutes, the controller seemed to have changed his tone when we asked for an update. He informed us the parking was infact still full. Again, it was nice of him to present us with this information ahead of time…..
With only a few minutes of fuel remaining now before we’d have to divert to our alternate airfield to refuel, the pressure suddenly ramped up. The controller could only respond ‘standby’ to our requests of exactly how long it would be until a parking spot became free.
In an effort to build more situational awareness our understanding of the situation, I asked the first officer to contact the control tower on the ground directly on our second radio. In heinsight, we could have been listening in before, but we’d been lured in to a false sense of security by the controllers reassuring time delay initially provided.
The control tower informed us all parking bays were full, but one aircraft was ‘just about’ to push and start. I suggested we could land and then wait on the taxiway until they’ve done so, however this was denied as there was already an aircraft doing exactly this on their only short stretch of taxiway, so the taxiway was also full.
It was now crunch time…..do we put all our eggs in one basket here, and trust that the aircraft on the ground is ‘just about’ to push back and remain in the hold, or do we divert our aircraft and go to refuel, delaying all passengers and potentially putting us as a crew out of hours which could have huge knock on effects for the company?
The decision had to be an immediate one as we were now sat with the exact amount of fuel to get us safely and legally to our alternate airport, without burning into our emergency ‘final reserve’ fuel that should never be touched.
I knew which one felt right in my gut, and I asked the First Officer his thoughts before I came forth with mine, just to avoid confirmation bias?
It was a unanimous decision…..don’t trust the Greek controllers, or the aircraft on the ground. For all we know that aircraft could have a tech issue now or on push back. We declared we’d be diverting to Brindisi. whilst requesting an immediate radar heading in that direction to take us out of the hold….which the controller immediately gave us.
We started climbing the aircraft to a higher altitude for our short hop over to Brindisi in an effort to save some more fuel, and I handed control of the aircraft to the First Officer to free up my capacity to manage the situation and make sure everything was in order for the diversion.
Whilst setting up the aircrafts computer systems and programming the approach to Brindisi in, I was also thinking about what I was going to say to the passengers shortly and how I was going to word it. I also had to let the company know so that they could inform Brindisi ahead of time, so we would have handling agents there to meet us for the refuel.
At this moment, the radar crackled to life again, this time the controller was informing us that the parked aircraft had now pushed back, and there was a parking space if we’d like to return. This is again a tricky decision….we’d now begun our diversion….by turning back to Corfu again, if something goes wrong on that approach, or the runway gets blocked, or ATC change their mind about parking spots being free, we are no longer able to safely divert back to Brindisi due to lack of fuel.
I told the controller that only if he could clear us for an approach from where we were, and make sure we were number 1 for landing i.e not put any other aircraft infront of us, who could screw things up…..then we’d return. To this, he complied. An uneventful approach and landing followed.
Overall it was a pretty stressful 10 minutes. We de-briefed on the ground and again on the flight back. Everything has a silver lining and for me, it would be the fact that we can draw some learning points from this.
Some things here were totally out of our control, but I’ve since reflected on the scenario and have come up with the following learning points that could hopefully help others out if faced with a similar situation.