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Thinking outside the box

In the airline business, and in life, you need to spend money to make money. And sometimes you have to throw a little more money at a problem to limit the overall loss. I recently had a flight that drove that point home.

Photo by Chris Rose.

I was supposed to operate a flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Charlotte, North Carolina, after flying in from Florida. We were originally scheduled to keep the airplane, but that went out the window at least the day before. We arrived on time and began to pack up our stuff to shuffle down to the terminal. My first officer and I spotted the bad news as we were downloading the flight plan: We were already showing a two-hour delay. A little digging revealed that the new airplane was now being replaced by a second new airplane, which was inbound from Miami. Whatever. These things happen. I went to the crew lounge and took a nap.

When the airplane pulled into the gate and emptied out, we went down the jet bridge and began the process of catching up as quickly as possible. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the fuel load was several thousand pounds over what our dispatch release called for. It was a short flight, and we were full, and I could immediately see that we would be landing over our maximum landing weight if we didn’t do something. I put in a call to my dispatcher. It quickly became apparent that a new flight plan had been put out while I was dozing, and the airplane had even more fuel than the dispatcher was aware of.

It turned out that a series of equipment swaps had taken place overnight. The airplane we were now on had originally been scheduled to fly an early morning flight from Miami to the West Coast, and it had been fueled accordingly. At some point, yet another equipment swap had taken place, and the airplane was sent to Newark, where it was going to be my chariot to Charlotte. It had flown two hours as opposed to six, which meant that it was grossly over-fueled for us. What got my dispatcher upset is that, behind the scenes, a series of phone calls had been made to make sure enough fuel would be removed to let us fly to Charlotte. Somewhere, that ball had been dropped, and we were boarding.

Defueling a 737 is far more time consuming than fueling, especially if there is fuel in the center tank. The fuel must be removed (which is slow), and then balanced, which means that the main tanks have to be full in order to carry fuel in the center tank. A couple of radio calls to the operations staff were made to find out if the defuel truck was en route, but a definitive answer was hard to get. In the meantime, I was on the phone with my dispatcher trying to come up with a workable plan if the truck didn’t show soon.

Remember, we were already two hours late, and these folks wanted to get where they were going, and the passengers and crew in Charlotte wanted the same—but they needed us to get there. I suggested that we start looking at much lower altitudes, which would increase the burn. I also suggested that we run the auxiliary power unit the whole time to add to the fuel burn.

“How low do you want to go?”

“As low as necessary.”

In my career, getting out of New York airspace has at times required a certain amount of creativity. Once while trying to leave LaGuardia Airport to get to Raleigh-Durham, we were facing a ground stop of several hours. I volunteered to fly below 10,000 feet if necessary, and a few phone calls later, we had coordinated a route that had us at 8,000 feet with no delay. I dipped into that experience bucket for this flight.

“I’d like to go at 10,000 feet or higher just so we can go faster and lose less time, but I’ll do whatever I need.” My dispatcher began running numbers for various altitudes.

“I can plan on 16,000, but you might have to drop the gear early to make max landing weight.”

There was no sign of a defueling operation any time soon, so I took it. We finished loading up and left, still more than two hours behind schedule. ATC was a bit confused at our filed altitude, which was more appropriate for a Beechcraft King Air than a Boeing 737, but a quick explanation of the need to burn fuel helped. However, they had some questions about our route, which was…odd, as it had us flying well out of the way to join an arrival from the south. Again, we needed to burn fuel. We managed to limit our altitude to 14,000 feet, which helped a bit. I had done the math to determine what our fuel load needed to be upon landing to be under the maximum weight. As we approached the beginning of the arrival, it was clear that we would either have to hold or start using drag. As we descended below 10,000 feet, the gear went out, along with a notch of flaps. The fuel burn (and the noise) increased dramatically. The predicted weight at touchdown began to come down as well.

It seemed to take an eternity, but we finally were able to take a vector to the final approach course, and touched down with a few hundred pounds to spare. When we got to the gate, the passengers waiting for the outbound flight looked out the window with a clear display of relief. They, too, were going to be late, but much less so than they would have been. I hate wasting fuel just to burn it, but we had to balance that with the basic tenet of trying to hold up our end of the bargain for our passengers. An airplane that starts the day late typically stays behind all day, and this was compounded by the need to put this particular airplane on our particular flight. This sort of thing is pretty rare, but thinking outside the box can help minimize the snowball effect. Safety was never compromised, and no flights had to be canceled. Was it a perfect solution? A perfect outcome? No, not at all. But it was workable, legal, and safe, and that was all that mattered.

Chip Wright
Chip Wright is an airline pilot and frequent contributor to AOPA publications.
Topics: Career

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