The Domino Effect

Jim, my copilot, peered at the computer screen as I tapped the appropriate codes onto the keyboard. We both glanced at the green display that appeared. Yup … our airplane was late as usual-almost 40 minutes. We were departing La Guardia, flying to Miami, and then on to Port of Spain in Trinidad. Little did I know that the delay had set in motion a chain of events that would haunt us until the very end of our two-day trip. Our tardy departure was about to begin a domino effect.

The airplane was arriving from Miami and had left late because of typical weather flow control delays through Washington Center airspace. Fortunately, the same airplane would be used for our thru-flight to Port of Spain. That would eliminate the drill of packing up our flight nest and bag-dragging to another gate when we arrived in Miami. But we still had one minor problem.

The Port of Spain Airport Authority had been closing the runway at 10 p.m. local time for some type of mysterious night construction. Our departure delay in La Guardia would jeopardize that arrival. As a matter of fact, on a previous trip we had almost been forced to turn around in San Juan airspace.

On that flight, our dispatcher had negotiated a 15-minute later arrival. I had pushed the power up, allowing us to fly at almost .84 Mach. Even at that speed, the computer was calculating an ETA with only three minutes to spare before the airport would be closed. About 50 miles south of the southern Puerto Rican coastline, San Juan Center conveyed some bad news. Piarco Control (the nonradar air traffic agency for Trinidad) was going to inform us that landing clearance would be denied. After a few tense minutes, and a call to our dispatcher, we were allowed to continue. Apparently, the airport authority forgot to inform the Piarco controllers of the negotiated delayed arrival. Some flights have not been so lucky and have had to divert to San Juan.

With flight plan paperwork in hand, Jim and I left Operations and walked into the concourse. We negotiated the organized chaos of the security lines and excused ourselves past a sea of impassive faces. Upon our arrival at the gate, the agent took the time to exchange pleasantries despite a small crowd of discontented expressions in front of his counter. We opened the door to the jet bridge and walked onto the airplane. After introductions to the flight attendants, Jim and I began our preflight duties.

With the airplane boarded in record speed, the forward entry door was closed. Unfortunately, the agent’s efficiency did not continue into the next part of the process. Our ground crew had disappeared like a David Copperfield magic act. Because of our delay, the original ground crew had reached the end of their shift. We needed the next shift to conduct our pushback, and it didn’t seem like anybody was rushing to our aid.

A couple of radio calls later, a fresh ground crew walked out of the ready room. By the time we began the pushback, a maze of rolling aluminum had begun to multiply on the taxiways. The line of weather in Washington Center’s airspace was starting to choke off La Guardia departures. We weren’t going anywhere soon. Neither Jim nor I had high hopes of being able to see Port of Spain that evening.

By the time we did depart, it became anybody’s guess as to our final destination for the trip. Upon reaching cruise altitude, just to keep the atmosphere lively, I bantered about some likely scenarios with Jim.

Jim wasn’t concerned. He was on the very bottom of the reserve status list. His pay would be the same no matter what trip he flew because of the reserve minimum guarantee. Jim was happy just to be back on the job. He had returned from furlough, spending almost three years as a captain for our affiliate regional airline as part of an often debated flow-back agreement within our union contract. (That’s another story.) Working for the affiliate made him appreciate his position with our airline. (That’s also another story.) In addition, Jim was the proud father of his first child, born premature only a week earlier.

As we drew closer to Miami, our dispatcher began to send us a series of messages via the Automatic Crew Alerting and Reporting System (ACARS) printer. The first message was a request to put the pedal to the metal in an attempt to decrease the turnaround time and thus beat the curfew. Perhaps we were going to Port of Spain after all.

The next message was for our flight attendants. They were being reassigned to a St. Thomas layover. That was interesting. What did that mean for us?

We had our answer soon enough. When the ACARS printer slithered out another section of curled, white paper, I tore it from the slot and began to read the cryptic message. Jim and I were being reassigned to fly a trip to Panama City. So much for Port of Spain.

My initial reaction was actually relief. The new trip sequence would bring us home hours earlier. And since the new sequence qualified as a reassignment, I was pay-protected for the greater time of the two trips, which happened to be the original. Or so I thought. The caveat to my thinking didn’t include one of the exceptions to the rule that the reassignment was as a result of a misconnect. So much for that theory. Knock a few more bucks off the next paycheck.

As part of the domino effect, our Port of Spain trip would be flown by a Miami-based crew. That crew was on the reserve list so no other flights were affected by additional reassignments. However, the airline was now minus two pilots who couldn’t be used as insurance for other such schedule emergencies.

Once I parked the brakes in Miami, Jim and I assembled our bags in a flurry. We wished our flight attendants good luck on their new trip and exited the airplane. We did our best halfback shuffles up the jet bridge as we maneuvered our bags through the ambling crowd of deplaning passengers.

Par for the course, the outbound gate to Panama City was located in a concourse that required another shuttle flight to reach. Glancing at my watch, I realized that the agents would probably have started the boarding process. I was right. Upon our arrival, the typical gaggle of passengers was plodding their way toward the jet bridge.

As the agents swished boarding passes into the card readers, I reviewed the flight plan paperwork at the gate and then joined Jim on the airplane. By the time I stepped into the cockpit, the interior preflight inspection had been completed except for some of the Flight Management Computer (FMC) data that couldn’t be entered without the paperwork that I held in my hand. The exterior walk-around inspection had also been accomplished. No one could have told me that Jim had been absent from the airline for three years.

Unfortunately, Jim’s effectiveness was all for naught. We were blindsided by circumstances beyond our control. The departure came to a painful halt. Two passengers had failed to check in at the gate. International flights require that luggage belonging to a no-show passenger must be removed. Every person must be matched with every bag. Nothing brings a flight to its knees like a bag search.

The bag removal procedure is the safest course of action. I am in full agreement with the procedure even though it seems to be based on the old-school theory that the bad guy would rather not be blown up with his ticking Gucci bag. Today’s suicide bombers don’t subscribe to that theory, but I’m not willing to take that chance.

In any case, the errant bags had to be found on our fully loaded 757 carrying 188 people. And it was a muggy 92? Miami day. If you’re the guy that’s stuck in the cargo compartment, when you get out 92? feels like you’re in a wine cellar.

After a half hour had passed (and I could no longer make an intelligent PA as to our delay status), I walked down the jet bridge stairs outside to ramp level. I established a sympathetic rapport with the crew chief. The crew chief’s physique easily exceeded my frame by 100 pounds, most of it wrought iron. I was almost certain that his shadow dwarfed the left wing. (Well ? maybe not the entire wing.) In a humble tone, I asked for his best estimate in completing the bag search. He grinned and then pointed at the line of baggage carts surrounding the aft end of the airplane. The baggage carts were over-stuffed with luggage. And the airplane’s cargo compartments hadn’t been fully off-loaded yet.

“We still haven’t found one bag,” the crew chief grunted. “Once we find it, we have to reload all that stuff back on.”

I kept my humble expression, but narrowed my eyes. The crew chief read my mind and asked, “When?”

I nodded.

“At least another 40 minutes.” He sighed.

“Thanks,” I said, and then added, “Want me to help?’

The crew chief smiled. I turned away and marched toward the jet bridge stairs.

The whole baggage unloading and reloading process managed to delay us 1-1/2 hours. That’s another example of how the terrorists have already scored a victory. If we can’t find a more expeditious way to locate one simple piece of luggage without inconveniencing an entire airplane of customers, then something is wrong. The technology already exists. Ask Wal-Mart how their employees confirm the contents of shipped boxes from their distribution centers without having to actually tear open the cardboard.

A few head shakes and heavy sighs later, our flight finally departed Miami. We arrived in Panama City unscathed except for a few minor deviations around the typical towering stratospheric thunderstorms that are prevalent in that part of the world.

Once again, the domino effect took hold. Because of our tardy departure from Miami, a new delayed rest period was required. The rest period brought the following morning’s departure time to almost three hours past the original schedule.

The only happy campers were our flight attendants. Their original schedule with the original cockpit crew had provided for a relatively short layover. Now the flight attendants would get the opportunity to sleep in. And they would deadhead home rather than having to work back to their home base of DFW. I was glad to have had a small responsibility in their joy despite the fact that Jim and I would participate in inconveniencing about 500 passengers in less than 24 hours. At least the hotel had a five-star rating.

Once we arrived back in Miami from Panama City, there was nothing left for crew schedule to contractually do, but to send us home. Because of our delayed departure, the original deadhead flight had already left the building. Jim requested a rescheduled deadhead to his home in St. Louis and I requested a later flight to La Guardia. We shook hands in Miami Operations and parted company till the next time.

I arrived back home in Connecticut a little weary and a little lighter in the wallet. The trip was not my favorite. I was disappointed that we had not delivered a better product to our customers. And I couldn’t blame it all on weather or ATC. I did, however, gain a better appreciation of the domino effect. I couldn’t imagine how many others of our flights experienced their own form of chaos. I would rather not participate again, but I know that it’s inevitable.


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