"Communicating in Severe Weather"
J. Randolph Babbitt, Washington, DC
November 30, 2011

Diversion Forum

Thank you all for joining us here today. 

As you heard from Secretary La Hood, it’s absolutely in our best interest to work together to make sure that our system functions as efficiently and smoothly and safely as possible.

I’m very glad that everyone could be here today to help us talk through the things we need to do.

The public expects safe and efficient air service. And when severe weather hits, fliers expect us to do our best to communicate with each other and make good decisions. And good decisions are made on good information. We want to make sure we exchange the most up-to-date information with each other so we can in fact make the best decisions.  

Since the tarmac delay rule went into effect last year, there has been a significant decrease in lengthy delays for passengers. All of us want to provide the best travel experience for customers.  It’s in our universal best interest to all work toward that end.

I want to note that this forum would not be possible or effective without the participation of many people. The Secretary recognized our DHS partners. I want to recognize our industry stakeholders. And also, I want to acknowledge Paul Rinaldi and Trish Gilbert with NATCA, Jim Little with the Transport Workers Union, Lee Moak and Keith Hagy with ALPA and Joseph Miceli with the Airline Dispatchers Federation. All of you together are going to help this effort.

All of us have gathered here today to review the snow storm of October 29 and talk about how we can improve our procedures that we all use in order to reduce the impact of bad weather on passengers as much as possible.

Snow events, by the way, are not the only challenges we face. In fact, thunderstorms are responsible for the majority of aircraft diversions each year.  So the discussion we have today, and the recommendations that result, will benefit us going forward in all kinds of weather, not just snow storms.

So, for the benefit of everyone present, let me draw a general outline of what occurred on Oct. 29. 

A handful of seemingly unrelated complications happened that day. Any of these items that happened on that day, in isolation, would have been something we could have handled easily enough. But each issue compounded the problem that came before it and you had the confluence of a number of challenges that multiplied the impact of this storm greatly.

As you all know, on that Saturday morning, October 29, an early winter storm hit the northeast. It came in faster than predicted. It dumped a lot of snow and seriously reduced visibility.

The forecast had predicted the weather to deteriorate around 6 p.m., but the cloud ceilings started dropping earlier than the forecast and then snow soon followed. Visibility deteriorated as early as 11 a.m. in New York City airports, including JFK, Newark, La Guardia and Teterboro.

Aircraft were making go-arounds at JFK as early as 11 a.m. again due to poor visibility.   

So first we have weather that advances earlier and stronger than predicted.

Second, and completely unrelated, we had scheduled maintenance on navigation equipment at JFK. This meant that one runway could not be used for approaches if the weather got bad, which it did. This maintenance had been scheduled in advance and was very vital.  We wanted to get it done before the Thanksgiving holiday travel season to avoid even greater potential logjams.

Again, this maintenance would not have been a problem in good weather or if a number of other factors had not played out.

Third, other navigation equipment at JFK malfunctioned that day due to accumulating snow.

Fourthly, JFK used a runway for landings that has an impact on surrounding airports because the airspace in New York is crowded.

The New York airspace is a very compact environment.  When interruptions occur, there is a domino effect. A change in runways at JFK for a few hours meant that La Guardia could only land on one of its runways. And that change in La Guardia in turn meant that if Newark aircraft departed on a certain runway, then Teterboro was basically shut down. The dominos were beginning to fall.

This domino effect in the tight New York airspace is something we are working to mitigate long-term through airspace redesign and by implementing new precision NextGen procedures that deconflict this airspace for aircraft.

Meanwhile, fifth, at Newark, navigation equipment on two runways that is essential for landing in bad weather had been taken out of service to be replaced with new, modern equipment. Again, this is something we traditionally do in October, after the summer travel season and before the Thanksgiving rush. This meant Newark had no back up runways for bad weather landings.

And sixth, because of the storm, other landing equipment at one of the Newark runways – the glideslope – kept freezing up with sleet and ice. Technical specialists kept brushing it off, but at a certain point it became unsafe to climb the mast to clear off the antennas. Eventually they deiced it and got it working again.

But, I’m not done yet. Number seven is you have to factor in the wind. It was very strong that day. There were wet runways and wind shear reports. So at La Guardia, for a time, the airport had to go to a single runway configuration due to strong Northeast winds that were gusting up to 30 knots. This further limited capacity.

So, on October 29, those were the challenges that all of us were facing in New York airspace that morning and early afternoon. The storm had hit pretty well.  We had a stew of factors that were brewing to make a pretty difficult situation.

To recap, we had a storm that came in earlier than forecast, we had scheduled maintenance, we had snow-related equipment failures, the wind severely restricted La Guardia and the airspace in New York got very crowded and slow. As they say, when New York gets the sniffles, the United States gets a cold.

So, at this point, operators began to make, I want to emphasize, independent decisions to divert a number of their aircraft to other airports.

A total of 134 flights were diverted from New York airports that day. Fifty-four diverted from JFK; 50 from Newark; 16 from La Guardia and 14 from Teterboro.

These decisions are happening fast and they are happening real time.

And this is the point where better information sharing would have helped everyone involved.  No airline knew that other airlines were independently making some of the same decisions about where to divert their aircraft.

Of the 134 flights that diverted – 28 of them went to Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Connecticut.  And 11 flights diverted to Boston’s Logan International.

Both Bradley and Logan took significant measures to accommodate all these diverted airplanes, including closing runways to park the additional planes. In the air, there were four hours’ worth of aircraft already airborne before the storm hit. Those planes had taken off from overseas and other domestic locations many hours before the storm began. Those flights had to land somewhere. And so they did.

Several of the aircraft unfortunately had to declare fuel emergencies because they were running into their reserve fuel stores.

Before 2 p.m., three international flights declared fuel emergencies and diverted to Boston.

A flight from Madrid to Kennedy diverted to Boston and landed barely above minimum fuel reserves.

About the same time seven inbound flights that diverted to Bradley advised they had fuel concerns.

Things were happening fast on Oct. 29. A lot of decisions were made quickly – unfortunately the decision to use Bradley by a lot of people overwhelmed the airport.

None of these airlines knew the full scope of the situation on the ground at Bradley. Air traffic controllers handling flights to Bradley and Boston did not know whether these aircraft were regularly-scheduled flights or whether they were diverted flights. 

These two airports faced constraints for international flights with limited gate space and customs agents to handle the international flights.

During this fast-moving weather system, 20 inches of snow fell at Bradley International. It caused a widespread commercial power failure, which caused communications problems in the airport. Luggage belts and cargo belts and elevators stopped working. There was difficulty refueling airplanes. There was difficulty deicing aircraft.  We all know that when you can’t deice your aircraft in those conditions, you might as well weld your plane to the ramp. You’re not going anywhere. 

Because of the ramp conditions, Bradley could not get “air stairs” through the snow and over to the parked aircraft to unload passengers. In addition, the tugs couldn’t pull some of the planes – it was too icy. 

The fact that so many aircraft diverted to Bradley highlights that if everyone continues to choose the same airports because they are close and convenient, then we simply will repeat this problem with every storm as they come.

Fortunately, many of the other aircraft that diverted went to a variety of alternate airports.

They went to Bangor, Buffalo and Baltimore, for example.   And every airplane landed safely that day – a testament to the pilots, dispatchers, controllers, technicians, airport operators, and everyone who were working that day.

Most of the airplanes flew to airports that could handle the extra volume with no problem. They refueled, they waited their turn, and the passengers were on their way back to New York. 

But the fact remains, that a series of events and decisions sent a large number of aircraft to an airport that was quickly becoming overwhelmed with diversions.

We have a lot of talented people working in the airlines, in air traffic control, at the airports and in related operations. To put this in perspective, our system effectively handles 50,000 to 70,000 flights per day on average. Diversion flights are a rare occurrence.

But when this does happen, we need to make the information available to help airlines, controllers and airport operators decide the optimal airport for a diversion.

The airports themselves know what their capabilities are. The pilots know how long they can travel before they must land on fuel concerns. Air traffic controllers know first as delays begin and they know the condition of the runways. There’s a lot of knowledge out there.

If everyone had access to this whole picture, we all wouldn’t have continued to send planes to an airport that was over its capacity.

In summary, we have to encourage everyone to move beyond a single data point in making decisions and to look at the whole picture.

It’s in the best interest of the flying public that we improve the way we share information so that during severe weather events, all the many moving parts in this aviation system have the most updated view and the latest information.

I appreciate you all coming here to talk about just that. I am looking forward to participating in a robust discussion. Now Michael Huerta, the FAA’s Deputy Administrator, will review several recommendations that we think can begin to improve our process and decision-making during severe weather.  

Thank you.