MIAMI — While I’m still not totally sure what the heck a polar vortex is, one thing is certain – extreme cold and the aviation industry do not mix. Two weeks ago, I planned to venture around the eastern half of the United States in order to cover the final scheduled Delta DC-9 flight. While I made the flight, what I also got was a first hand lesson on how ill-prepared this industry is for climate change and extreme weather.
My itinerary, while ambitious, would have been a piece of cake on an ordinary day. I was booked on the 10:10am flight out of LGA to MSP, 4:20pm flight out of MSP to ATL, and 9:45pm flight out of ATL back to LGA. Both connections had multiple hours between flights, as I wouldn’t be tempting fate with a 39 minute connection on this day.
The weekend leading up to my flights was treacherous for the New York area airports. JFK had been closed for several hours on Friday due to extremely low visibility and drifting snow, and again on Sunday due to equipment failure, severe icing, and other dangerous conditions. This had a cascading effect throughout the entire aviation industry, canceling thousands of flights across the country and generally causing chaos. In fact, the same thing is happening right now as the northeast goes through another cold spell and snow storm.
Just to be safe, I attempted to change to an earlier flight out of LaGuardia the night before. Unfortunately, the type of ticket I had could not be modified online, which is a huge problem during irregular operations. I called up Delta and the menus prompted me that the hold time would be greater than three hours. Yikes. Alternatively, I could have the system call me back when it was my turn. I had heard others talk about this, and decided to give it a try. I waited, waited some more, and eventually forgot about it.
On the morning of my flight, I arrived at what I assumed would be a hellscape. Oddly, LaGuardia seemed calmer than most normal days. I breezed through security in seconds with TSA PreCheck. I was chatting with with a TSA agent about my travel plans for the day, and he responded with a playful “that’s what you think.” A nice vote of confidence to start the day.
I picked out at spot at a restaurant in terminal C to wait for my flight. Unbelievably, it was still listed as on time just two hours before departure. As any true aviation geek would, however, I checked where my aircraft was coming from, and the news wasn’t good. The aircraft was coming in from Detroit, one of the coldest cities in the country that day.
An hour went by as the inbound aircraft was listed as “awaiting takeoff” by Delta. I’m sure the wait for deicing at DTW was long, but they got the job done, and my aircraft arrived about an hour and a half late. I wasn’t worried, as I baked in a four hour layover at MSP for just this reason. Well, the news got worse. Our aircraft and cabin crew had arrived, but the pilots were on the following flight from DTW. Oops. Another 45 minutes on the clock, our pilots arrived and we were on our way. Later on, I would learn that this aircraft, an MD88, was involved in a deadly accident in 1996. Not a good omen.
While in the air, I learned that JetBlue made the shocking decision to cancel nearly all their operations in the New York Metro and Boston areas. This, I thought to myself, can only be bad news. What if Delta did the same? How long would I be stranded at MSP or ATL?
My flight arrived to MSP a few hours late, but I was shocked that I had even gotten out of NYC, considering that two out of the three earlier flights had been cancelled. Minneapolis was cold, the coldest in decades actually. My phone said it was -11F, but the people of MSP didn’t seem to care. Meanwhile, at Chicago, O’Hare airport practically shut down as its fuel supply had frozen. MSP was ready, however, while other airports caved under the ice.
Despite the bitter cold, the final DC9 flight pushed back early, without deicing, and we were off to ATL. Two out of three flights for the day down, one to go. This is where things started to get interesting.
The southern United States is not ready for cold weather, even if northern states laugh at their concept of cold. Miraculously, my flight back to LGA was listed as on time. Just before boarding, a delay was posted because one of the flight attendants was stranded elsewhere.
As we sat on the Boeing 737-800 waiting to push back, the pilot came on the PA with three pieces of bad news. First, the fuel supply at ATL had potentially been contaminated with ice crystals, which is a very bad thing. Fuel would have to be trucked in from an alternate location, and that was taking a while. Second, the potable water distribution had frozen, so the lavatory sinks would not work, nor would the flight crew be able to offer coffee or tea. Third, our late flight attendant had finally been located, but was not yet with the aircraft.
After about 30 minutes, our pilot came back on the PA with some more news. All three of our prior problems had been solved, which is great! We got our fuel, hand sanitizer for the lavatory sinks, and a new flight attendant. However, a new problem cropped up- the push bar to push us away from the gate had frozen. It wasn’t that cold at ATL, with temperatures of about 28 degrees. At this point, I wondered if my luck had run out, and if our crew was about to time out for the day, stranding us at ATL.
Another 20 minutes and one new push bar later, we finally started rolling in the right direction. I asked a flight attendant how close the crew came to timing out, and I was told a mere 13 minutes. Once in the air, we were told to expect a very bumpy flight, and they weren’t kidding. We were being thrown all over the place with a monster tailwind. The tailwind was so strong, in fact, that the pilot came on the PA once more to say “this is about as fast as I’ve ever gone in an aircraft, nearly 750 MPH.”
I was so close to completing this improbably triangle of flights on one of the worst travel days in recent history. “What if we have to divert to another airport because of the weather” I thought to myself. Thankfully, the pilots set us down on LGA’s runway 31 with the wind putting up its best fight, and the day was done.
I checked into LGA on Foursquare, and friends responded in awe on Twitter. “OMG, you made it.
#stunned” said my friend John Walton. I really couldn’t believe it myself, either. I’m pretty sure I used all my “flight Karma” for 2014 in one day, but what a day it was! Oh, and remember that callback from Delta? That never really worked. They tried calling me three times, but only after 24 hours, and each call failed on their end.
Whether you want to believe this or not, climate change is here. Winters will be colder and summer storms will be harsher. While Atlanta may not see freezing temperatures every day, they may want to take a lessons from their cousins in Detroit and Minneapolis, unless they really like fuel popsicles. The aviation industry needs to take a hard look at itself and better prepare for this severe weather, it won’t be going away any time soon.