Well Trained Alaska Crew + Hard-Working Controllers Show How the System is Supposed to Work

10:51 AM


By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

Dallas- Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) is one of the busiest hubs in the country. Like any of the other giant airports in the land, when severe WX wanders by, a ballet begins in the sky re-routing inbound airliners, and holding many on the ground waiting for clearance to depart.
    
My wife Julie Celeste was on Alaska 652 on Friday, June 2, a 737-900 flight with non-stop service between PDX and Dallas. After spending the majority of the route zigging and zagging around weather, the crew chose to skirt a major thunderstorm SW of the airport, and turned south. When they made their wide turn back towards the airport, the 652 crew was headed for a serious-looking splotch of orange and red on the NEXRAD radar. There was this one tiny hole between the massive buildups, and they were headed right for it. What was that saying about there never being any old, bold pilots? Upon closer inspection out the window, the crew must have taken one look at the wall of weather at their twelve and said “nuh-uh.” They did a quick 180 and headed away from DFW. Now what?


Those red and orange returns were getting better acquainted and joined up to become one right about over the airport. And right on cue, the FAA’s ATCSCC OIS System spit out a ground stop for all airplanes filed for DFW. A ground stop - for the non-pilots on here - is when ATC will not let you even leave a distant airport to start a flight to the impacted airport. Ground stops come in two flavors, Tier 1 and Tier 2. A Tier 1 ground stop means all regional airports and hubs in about 25% of the country are stopped. No clearance for you, but flights with much longer routes can take off.


But Friday’s WX at DFW quickly prompted an upgrade to the ground stop in the OIS system to a Tier 2, covering basically all airports except SEA in the far northwest corner of the country. Everyone anywhere who wanted to launch for the Big D would just have to hang out and wait.
    
Meanwhile, Alaska 652 was flying about a 190 heading pointed at Mexico City when ATC put them into a hold 75NM SW of the field - big, big left turns level at FL230. They did lap after lap after lap before the system cried “uncle” and the crew was diverted to IAH in Houston.
    
When WX in Houston also went down, 652's crew made a big boy decision and announce a diversion from their diversion, this time to Austin Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) which was closer, to top off the tanks and wait out the WX impacting DFW. This is what happens when crews are trained very well. A lot could have gone wrong here, but right and left seat up front got this call right.

I did however have a moment of concern when the radar blip and data block for 652 vanished from the Flightaware moving map as the flight headed south for Austin. When there are +TS in the area and the flight is on their second diversion having burned a lot of fuel doing laps in a hold, the last thing anyone wants to see is a disappearing blip. There are only a few reasons why a blip disappears from radar, and many are very, very bad. But the flight data on Flightaware continued to update speed and altitude, so I knew this was nothing more than a technical gremlin.


After landing in Austin, the flight was sent to the penalty box to shut down and wait, because no gate was available to fuel and to possibly deplane some pax. There was no gate because every airliner in the south Texas sky trying to get to DFW also diverted to – you guessed it – Austin. This set up a classic and sometimes excruciating tarmac delay, sitting, and waiting, and waiting.
    
At one point, Alaska procured a van and stairs truck and dispatched them to come out to flight 652 and let 15 people off who wanted to get the heck out of the now-parked pressurized tube. Eventually, after snagging a gate, all pax were allowed off to eat and use the inside facilities.
    
My wife hurried off and brought food back on the plane. She wanted to be there because this was a very fluid day, and the WX windows into DFW were very small. If the flight crew of 652 decided to push back, damn sure better know that Julie was going to be inside when they abruptly decided to close the door and launch.
    
Alaska 652 did eventually push back, and joined a long conga line of outbounds jamming AUS’s taxiways. As day turned to evening in Dallas, the WX inched very slowly eastward, and in layers, the ground stops were lifted nationwide for DFW. I was watching the DFW traffic on Flightaware and could see the screen light up with the blue icons of what seemed like 10,000 inbound flights. In reality, at one point, I counted about 40 inbounds with DFW in their data block, coming from every direction.
    
But guess what? Mother Nature wasn’t done toying with this airport. More orange and red engulfed all quadrants around Dallas, and these inbounds were placed in holds all over the place, some with airplanes stacked up at a time. And one by one, the incredibly talented NATCA Air Traffic Controllers working at ZFW Center would peel off a plane from the stack, and vector them in to land south on the 17s and 18s. I am not kidding when I say this was very cool to watch unfold in as close to real-time as Flightaware can give us, because at one point, there were airplanes flying north over the airport up high, right over those flying south on short final down below. Mixed into this fray were airplanes coming from the south (as Alaska 652 did), flying northbound west of the airport, to be slid in between landing traffic coming back the other way. While I know all of these inbounds were safe at different altitudes, it must take nerves of steel as a Controller to look at this mess of blips layered on top of each other and be confident they were all given the right altitude.
    
The crew of Alaska 652 finally landed at 915PM local. Earlier, while stuck at AUS, the airline was saying the flight crew working 652 would “time out” at 940PM. If they could not get off at AUS in time to make the 53 minute flight to DFW before the Captain had to take a mandatory rest break, they could not depart, and a new crew would have to be found, which meant more delays.
    
So kudos to the crew of Alaska 652,for being on top of their fuel burn and range calculations, and for the FAA air traffic controllers who herded all those airplanes into the final approach chute like Texas cowboys herding cattle into a trailer. So many things could have gone wrong on this flight, but they did not. I am damned glad the talented people at ZFW Center did their job without trading any paint. These controllers are tops in their field, they have to be.
    
Because I would hate to see what might have happened today over Texas if our Air Traffic Control system ever gets outsourced to “Controllers-R-Us.”

#StopATCPrivatization

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