June 29th, 2017

Unscheduled stops

For the last decade or more, when I fly cross-country I’ve flown Jet Blue almost exclusively. I’ve nearly always had an excellent experience with it: comfortable seats, efficient service, and a tremendous on-time record.

But on a recent trip to California, for my return flight to Boston from the San Francisco area I got to the airport for a redeye and was told that the plane wouldn’t be taking off for 6 more hours. The reason given was that the plane itself—which was coming in from Boston—had to make an unscheduled stop.

That was troubling, and I wanted more information. “Oh, it happens all the time this time of year because of weather” said the man at the Jet Blue counter.

Happens all the time? I’d never heard of it before, except for when there are thunderstorms, and there were no thunderstorms that day. What’s more, I’ve been told that usually in that situation the weather is known beforehand and the takeoff is delayed rather than an unscheduled stop being made.

So I probed a little further. This time the counter guy said that when planes go from east to west in the US they meet with headwinds, and tailwinds going in the other direction. I already knew that; flights are uniformly longer for that reason when going east to west as compared to west to east.

But surely that was taken into account in the schedule? He explained that, when the headwinds were very strong, the planes use up more fuel and sometimes have to stop to refuel, often in Salt Lake City for this particular run.

I didn’t want to wait in that airport for six hours, so I asked him to switch me to the same flight on the next night. But sure enough, the next night the same thing happened—only this time the delay wasn’t as long, and I made sure to check for updates before I left for the airport (for some reason, even though I’d signed up for text messages, they weren’t coming through).

On this second night, however, Jet Blue was sending me emails with a split personality. One email would say that the flight takeoff had been delayed two hours, and then four minutes later I’d get another email saying that the flight was going to leave at the original departure time, no delay at all. This happened several times as I prepared to leave for the airport, wondering whether I ought to leave or whether I still had two hours before I needed to get a ride there.

As it turned out, the flight left about an hour and a quarter late, splitting the difference between the sets of paired emails. I talked to several people in the waiting area who said they’d gotten the same talking-out-of-both-sides-of-the-mouth emails that I’d received, and been puzzled by them.

So here’s my question: what gives? Has anyone else had this experience? Why would it be commonplace at this time of year? Is Jet Blue the only airline with the problem? Does it have something to do with the size of the planes? I couldn’t find a thing about it when I Googled, and I would have thought delays of this magnitude and unscheduled stops being “commonplace” would have gotten some sort of media attention. I did find this WSJ article from five years ago about a similar problem with transatlantic flights during the winter, but it was a different airline and a different type of airplane:

Dozens of Continental Airlines flights to the East Coast from Europe have been forced to make unexpected stops in Canada and elsewhere to take on fuel after running into unusually strong headwinds over the Atlantic Ocean….

United’s Continental unit—which relies on 757s to link its Newark, N.J., hub to numerous European destinations—has been most adversely affected. And recently, Continental began deploying some of its 757s on two traditional United routes out of Dulles—to Paris and Amsterdam—that used to be served by larger planes, exposing some westbound fliers to the same diversions that have played havoc with its schedule and reputation…

The workhorse 757, which entered airline service in 1983 and was produced until 2004, can carry more than 220 passengers in one class. In the U.S., it was initially used for domestic flights, including coast-to-coast trips, and for trips to nearby overseas destinations. But once the FAA in the early 1990s granted airline operators permission to use it on over-water routes, carriers including American, Northwest, US Airways and Continental found the 757 a fuel-effective way to serve cities in Western Europe that had previously been reached with larger, more costly wide-body planes that consume more fuel but have greater range.

Sounds like something very similar is going on now with Jet Blue transcontinental flights. And—at least from my personal experience—it’s something new. The plane involved in my trip was an Airbus A320, but Jet Blue has been using them since 2000, so they’re not new in that sense. But when I looked up the on-time record of my particular flight, I saw that delays of many hours have been happening at least once a week, and several cancellations as well in just the last couple of weeks.

I got home safely, slightly the worse for wear and a day later. Getting home safely is by far the most important thing, of course. But I’m asking all you airplane and airline experts (and I know you’re out there; you know who you are!) if you can explain what’s really going on here.

28 Responses to “Unscheduled stops”

  1. Ken Mitchell Says:

    Almost certainly, you’re running into problems with stronger-than-expected winds.

    Going east, we generally have tailwinds. We factor the EXPECTED wind in to the flight schedule, but the flight schedules are calculated weeks or months in advance, and are based on normally expected winds. If the tailwind is a little lighter than normal, then the flight will take a little longer (or the pilot will tweak up the airspeed).

    Heading west, we expect headwinds – but if the headwinds are abnormally high, we can’t make it all the way across the continent, and we would need to refuel. Across the continent, that’s an inconvenience and a delay; descend, land, refuel, take off, climb … but across the pond, that may mean a substantial diversion (for example, Newfoundland or Bermuda) or having to cut passengers or cargo to load more fuel.

    The weather forecasts are pretty good, up to about a week out. But the flight schedules are planned MONTHS out, and weather forecasts are guesswork at that point. Just remember this the next time somebody says that they can predict to within a tenth of a degree what the temperature is going to be 50 or 100 years from now.

  2. Bookworm Says:

    The only East-West, West-East travel I’ve done lately has been between Texas and California, and both flights were mercifully on time. (I hate to say it in the prevailing climate, but I’ve had nothing but good experiences with United, whether in terms of customer service or timeliness.)

    My last trip took me up to Bend on Alaska Airlines and we had a long delay attributed to a mechanical problem. They eventually brought in a different plane. On the way back, my flights were uneventful, but while I was waiting in the airport, I heard announcements signaling that another Alaska Airline plane was having mechanical difficulties. Hmmm….

    I’m glad that you arrived safe and sound at the end of it all. That’s always the most important thing with air travel.

  3. J.J. Says:

    Airlines plan fuel loads based on average conditions. We always had a “canned” flight plan that was figured for the average conditions at that tine of the year. It was our responsibility as flight crews to check the weather and adjust the fuel load as we deemed necessary. Sometimes we would get pushback from a dispatcher, but usually our judgments were accepted. (It was always an issue during the OPEC oil embargo in 1973.) If we knew we were going to have to do a lot of detouring around thunder bumpers plus stronger than normal head winds we added fuel accordingly. Only twice in my 25 years flying the line did we ever have to divert for fuel and that was due to a sudden, totally freakish weather change. Mother Nature can throw some mean curve balls.

    For Jet Blue to have this occur rather regularly seems a bit strange. Is management pushing for tighter fuel loads? Are crews not allowed to request additional fuel for detouring thunder storms and stronger headwinds? Since they have the SLC diversion option maybe they are being pressured to carry less fuel. Or maybe it is some other issue that has cropped up since I retired 24 years ago.

  4. Big Maq Says:

    “Since they have the SLC diversion option maybe they are being pressured to carry less fuel. Or maybe it is some other issue that has cropped up since I retired 24 years ago.” – JJ

    Agree there is something up with their explanation.

    But, isn’t their a lot of fuel used up with the extra landing and takeoff. Seems to not make economic sense to push for less fuel, unless pilots are prone to significantly over estimating their fuel needs on a regular basis.

    Anyway, JJ, you know better than I. 😉

  5. neo-neocon Says:

    Big Maq:

    This is not even remotely my field of expertise, but I think maybe they don’t want planes to fly too heavy with extra fuel because it uses more fuel to get them moving the heavier they are. It does seem that they should know the headwind speed, though, and be able to estimate how much fuel they will need ahead of time.

  6. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    When an explanation is given that doesn’t add up, deeper issues are at play. Issues that the powers that be have deemed best kept from exposure.

  7. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Suppose you find somebody who says, “Salt Lake City?” “Nope. Flew right over it.”

    Some years back a neighbor had been so delayed that he rented a car and headed home. I called the airline, probably just to be mean, and was told the aircraft had taken off as rescheduled. That wasn’t true, according to our neighbor. I said so. The office guy said they have to say what they’re told to say. I said they might want to get permission to tell the truth. He agreed tha twould be a good idea and gave me a number to call to express my opinion. I didn’t get around to it.

  8. Gringo Says:

    Even if a flight leaves and arrives on time, flying is still an ordeal for me. I don’t like the noise and the shaking. I took a flight last year, which was my first flight in 7+ years. I was fortunate to book a good price only two days before departure. The best I can say about flying is that it beats the bus.

  9. Oldflyer Says:

    JJ is an authoritative source. I would add one point. Fuel loads are not “canned” any more. Even smaller airlines depend on computers for routing and load management. Fuel load is computed at the time the flight is dispatched. The airline, in the form of the Dispatcher, will always figure the fuel as closely as possible–with due regard for conditions and legally required reserves, of course. Big Maq is correct that carrying extra fuel is an economic penalty. It can, of course, be an operational consideration if the departure is from a limited runway–not the case in Neo’s examples. Captains are frequently not satisfied with the computed load, and will negotiate for more. But, and this is a key point; both the Captain and the Dispatcher legally must sign the flight plan. So, there must be consensus on every aspect.

    It is hard to figure what caused Neo’s experience without more information. Jet Blue does operate two distinctly different airplanes. The Airbus A320 series, and the Embraer 190 jet that is similar in appearance. If they substituted a 190 on the route, the range would be marginal for a XC flight, at best. It could well require a fuel stop if conditions were not ideal. (They would have had some reason for doing that of course) Moreover, they also operate two varients of the Airbus; the A-320, and the larger A-321. I know the A-320 has plenty of range; but, I do not know whether the A-321 sacrifices range for additional passenger capacity. My first thought was that a different airplane had been substituted; but, if Neo is sure it was the A-320, that is not an issue.

    There are a variety of other scenarios that would cause the Captain to land short. A mechanical problem enroute that obviated continuing; but was correctable on the ground (unlikely). An issue with the airport at SFO, that caused excessive landing delays. (Sometimes something as simple as winds from the wrong direction can wreak havoc; and SFO is a place where that would happen.) Seriously un-forecast adverse winds enroute, or a lengthy, unanticipated diversion around dangerous weather–both fairly unlikely over the United States.

    I am sorry to say that airline (ground) personnel do lie. I have caught them at it; and I have been embarrassed by it more than once. I don’t know that it is always malicious; it may be due to stress,or to cover their own lack of information, i.e., give the customer a story, and hope they believe it. Sometimes they just believe that they can spin a less damaging story than admitting the truth. For instance, people really don’t understand crewing issues; but, it is sometimes a complex puzzle in which the pieces don’t fit perfectly. Anyway, fabricated stories seldom work.

    I try not to fly any more. But, a plug for Jet Blue. We flew them extensively between the East Coast and California in years past. Never had a complaint; and on the rare occasion that I fly now, I think of them first. (Why, don’t I fly on a pass? Like many others I was retired by bankruptcy which carries no pass privileges. Many people who have them would rather pay than risk space available travel in the era of full flights anyway.)

  10. Cornhead Says:

    Wow! Lots of airlines experts.

    I say saving money is the simplest answer here.

  11. Stan Smith Says:

    My brother was a Load Agent for American Airlines at one point in his career. The Load Agent is tasked with figuring fuel loads, based on average baggage weight, passenger weight, and fuel weight, and the expected burn rate over the course of the flight. This is all computed taking into account the latest weather info available (headwinds, etc.). Planes are not allowed to land with more than a certain amount of fuel left in the tanks (to minimize fire danger if there’s an accident upon landing), so if the fuel amount is over that required weight, the fuel is dumped (which is why airports often smell of an excess of Jet-A). If you watch some planes as they land, you might see vapor emanating from the wingtips as fuel is dumped. This dumping is of course very expensive for the airline (and if it happens often to a Load Agent, he/she is invited to leave the company). If headwinds are abnormally strong, the computed fuel might result in too little left to reach the required destination.

  12. blert Says:

    The Jet Stream can and does jump all over.

    This often results in the flight paths being reworked away from their original profile — A LOT.

    The last time this happened to me, I had to ride virtually straight south from Seattle-Tacoma towards Portland. Only then could the pilot turn west, and off to Hawaii.

    The jet stream was hundreds of miles south of its ordinary location — and was running at about 270 knots!

    This type of diversion costs money every possible way… starting with it keeps the planes airborne longer.

    The FAA stipulates that a given machine MUST be given a work over after so many hours in the air.

    With hundreds of planes in inventory, this quickly devolves into having the maintenance crews working like maniacs trying to pick up the burden.

    Often this can’t be achieved and the planes just sit on the apron until they can be serviced.

    The flying public is then baffled as to why ‘their’ plane is sitting on the tarmac hundreds of miles away. ( Hint, that location is a maintenance hub for the airline. These are chosen where land is cheap, and the population is thin, while being along significant routes for this or that airline. Local climate also figures large.)

    All of the above is TOO COMPLICATED to explain at the sales counter.

    Lastly, there is a SURGE in happy travel during the Summer. This also taps out the maintenance crews.

    Unlike trucks, buses, or cars, there is no legal way to delay aircraft maintenance.

    BTW, as the Summer air gets thinner, it’s common for the planes to take off with reduced fuel ( within limits ) so as to attain full loads of freight and passengers.

    If the flight path proves to be a ‘surprise’ the plane may be forced to land early. ( Ugh ) This is uncommon, but hardly unheard of. [ If the Jet Stream jumps down into the flight path with no notice. This is much more common up in Canada, where the Jet Stream normally roams.]

    { Why the Jet Stream jumps around quite the way it does is still a mystery.}

    BTW, the recent heat wave actually shut down flights out of this or that Arizona airport.

  13. Richard Aubrey Says:

    I don’t mind flying, from the time I find my seat to the time I stand up and wonder how come people aren’t getting off the stupid plane. Is somebody having a heart attack in the doorway or something?
    Before 9-11, I’d been talking to people occasionally about how far they’d be willing to drive to avoid having to fly. It was about six hundred miles for some folks. That’s a full day, but if you count the time to fly as from leaving the house to get to the airport a couple of hours early to getting to, say, your relatives’ home, that’s not much less, and you have a car when you arrive. And you pack what you want. And the food is better, the restrooms cleaner, the company is the folks you want, the entertainment is your choice, you can see the countryside which is, for some people, an active pleasure, the seats are more comfortable, if something interests you you can stop and enjoy it, and you can leave to return at will.
    Other than that, it’s a drag.

  14. Lorenz Gude Says:

    Back in the heyday of the 747 the longest non stop run was the SYD LAX run – nominally 13 hours 59 minutes. Often of the westbound flight back to OZ we would have to put into Fiji for fuel which added several hours to the total time. As I recall they used a lower passenger capacity 747 to achieve the non-stop. Further back like in 70s they always had to call into Fiji for fuel. So that long run was at the extreme limit of range for even the special long range 747s.

  15. F Says:

    Airlines can be insensitive to passengers, but when you’re dealing daily with multiple groups of 300 people who don’t really want to be there, working behind that counter must be one of the worst jobs in the world.

    Which is not to say most airlines put passenger convenience at the top of the priority list, and the interface between frustrated passengers and number-crunchers is the person behind the counter trying to mollify people who don’t always want to be mollified, and in any case want to be treated like adults.

    Now, at the risk of bringing up an uncomfortable memory, before you complain about an airline having to land in SLC to take on fuel, remember charter carrying a Brazilian soccer team that ran out of fuel a few minutes from the Medellin airport last year. The good news about running out of fuel is that the fire hazard is significantly reduced.

  16. Surellin Says:

    No doubt Alex Jones would say that this is due to a conspiracy between the hermaphroditic aliens and the vampires in the royal family. I personally go with headwinds.

  17. Passing Lanes in the Labyrinth - American Digest Says:

    […] On this second night, however, Jet Blue was sending me emails with a split personality. — Unscheduled stops […]

  18. neo-neocon Says:


    I wouldn’t complain about an airliner having to stop to take on fuel if it’s low. Safety first, of course.

    I’m questioning what’s going on with Jet Blue because it shouldn’t be happening on a routine basis. If nonstop flights (these all were nonstop) are having to stop to take on fuel regularly, at least once a week and perhaps even more often—then Houston, we’ve got a problem. The stoppage affects not just the flight that stops, but the subsequent flight on that airplane (that’s the one I was ticketed on, the west-to-east flight).

    When people buy cross-country nonstop tickets, it’s for a reason. For example, I could have chosen one of many many other flights that had stops, flights that would have been significantly less expensive. I didn’t choose them for a number of reasons, but the main reason was because of the stops, which make the trip take longer. If an airline is routinely stopping on its nonstop flights, that’s something that the passenger should know before buying the ticket, and/or the airline should be doing something different in terms of its fuel calculations.

  19. neo-neocon Says:


    See my comment above.

    It’s not that this happened once or twice. It’s that it was happening regularly.

  20. neo-neocon Says:

    Stan Smith:


  21. The Other Gary Says:

    If nonstop flights … are having to stop to take on fuel regularly, at least once a week and perhaps even more often—then Houston, we’ve got a problem. The stoppage affects not just the flight that stops, but the subsequent flight on that airplane…

    Something at Jet Blue is seriously f**ked-up.

    I can understand them cutting the fuel load to save money, but when they cut it so close that they’re making a lot of unscheduled stops, that COSTS them a lot of money.

    You can’t depend on the airlines making your convenience their paramount concern, but you’d think they’d be VERY concerned about their bottom line. And in this case, Jet Blue is shooting itself in BOTH feet: first, by incurring extra costs due to unscheduled stops, and second, by generating bad PR and customer annoyance directed at them.

  22. ETOPS Jeff Says:

    re: Stan Smith. Dump fuel before landing? I’ve only done that once in almost 40 years of jet flying! The reason fuel is dumped is due to an aircraft malfunction or other diversion that requires a runway that won’t handle the weight; meaning the runway isn’t long enough.

  23. Ymar Sakar Says:

    That is pretty strange, Neo. Because I also researched this topic, but it wasn’t about airplanes misusing fuel. It was about the Earth not being a sphere as seen in NASA cgi pictures.

    If the cosmology of the Earth is broken, and there are various experiments showing data that contradicts the status quo, then the planes are not making a “non stop flight” and thus they have to take on fuel. The GPS guidance and tracking of planes disappear after they get below the equator or near Antarctica.

    Coincidentally, weirdly enough, Antarctica is off limits.

  24. Ymar Sakar Says:

    Now I heard an IT programmer guy say the reason the calculators drop off the grid when the plane gets near Antarctica is because the longitude and latitude lines close in together. But that is on the premise that the mercator map and the sphere theory is correct. They can track things via spy sats if absolutely required.

  25. Ymar Sakar Says:

    And if this is an issue near the south pole, then it should be comparable to the North pole too.

  26. Patrick Says:

    This seems surprising to me only because we know that jets have enough fuel to fly across the Atlantic, a much longer distance than across the continental US. So it would seem to be either jets used only in the US have smaller fuel tanks, or for some reason Jet Blue isn’t filling their tanks up. Can’t see any reason for that second option.

  27. O.T. Says:

    My company has even trimmed the amounts of drinking water loaded, and we still make ‘planned’ diversions for gas n go. Well, we may know it’s planned but don’t tell the customers 🙂

  28. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Okay, It takes a certain amount of fuel to carry the fuel. Less fuel means using less fuel. But taking off after landing uses lots of fuel. The engines are at top end in order to get off the ground, you have to regain altitude, etc. Plus you have one more landing on your tires which have to be replaced after so much wear, or so many landings.
    Where are the savings? According to the reasoning, it takes more fuel to fly NY-LA than to fly NY to SLC, thence to LA.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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