A Second Word on the Virgin Atlantic Diversion

Now that more than a week has passed, I want to revisit my first post about the Virgin Atlantic flight diversion to Bradley International Airport last week.  You can read my original post HERE.

First, I think both Congressional and administration officials have grossly overreacted to this event.  This was not a 6 or 7 hour event.  It was a 4 hour event.   And the primary cause of keeping people contained on the aircraft was weather and then no available customs and immigrations officers to process passengers.  You see, it might be called Bradley *International* Airport but it’s “international” aspect derives from relatively short flights to Canada.

Now we have Senators and Secretaries demanding that we impose a 3 Hour rule on international carriers and decrying the inhumanity of what those poor people experienced.   Indeed, the more these people pound desktops, the more they reveal their ignorance.

Folks, I’ve sat in an aircraft waiting 4 hours to take off a number of times.  It’s boring.  It’s tedious but it isn’t inhumane.  The same is true of a flight that likely took about 7 hours from London to the NYC area.  

The real issue here is what we allow when it comes to a diversion and the reason for that diversion.  I said it in my first post and I’ll say it again:  Virgin Atlantic’s chief mistake was in putting themselves into a position to have to use Bradley or choosing Bradley for its relatively low cost to land, refuel and take-off again.  There were plenty of better alternatives and VA didn’t choose one. 

If we presume a 200 nautical mile diversion capability, let’s look at what was in range from Newark (EWR).  Click THIS MAP to see what was available.

This flight could have made Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, any of the NYC airports, Washington Dulles and maybe even Pittsburg.  Short of a real fuel emergency, this flight should have made for one of those major airports that has full facilities for a widebody jet carry international passengers. 

The fact that we don’t distinguish what is and isn’t a legal diversion in a non-emergency event is a bigger part of the problem for international flights.  We make any airport that has the ability to land the aircraft a legal airport for diversion and I’m not so sure we should.  Perhaps a better rule would be to insist on the ability to divert (for non-emergency reasons and weather ain’t an emergency in most cases) to a *capable* airport designated as such for an international flight. 

Regardless, one of the reasons given for the delays was lack of customs officials.  The airport would not dis-embark the passengers until they had staff.  I may be wrong but I believe they could have allowed them off the aircraft *if* they were kept in a sterile area until customs officials arrived.  Whether or not they had a sterile area large enough is another question but also reinforces the need for diverting to airports that are properly equipped for these events. 

Who is at fault?  Virgin!  Bradley!  The FAA!  The passengers! No one!

The better question is how do we fix this so that passengers can reasonable expect reasonable treatment in a reasonable time period in non-emergency diversions.  And reasonable really is probably some amount of time between 3 and 4 hours.  

Look, no reasonable passenger is going to be outraged by many hours of delay when the aircraft engine shuts down and the flight has to divert to the first and best available airport during a real emergency.   Sure, there is always the chance of a crank or arrogant passenger being outraged no matter what but in those events, they just don’t count and virtually all passengers understand the nature of a real emergency.

The real failures are in events like these where the pilots gambled (on circling and hoping they could land too long), the airline and pilots choosing a poor airport, the FAA not distinguishing what is and isn’t an appropriate diversion airport in an event like this (and the FAA has no right to be “outraged” at VA since they themselves make an airport like Bradley legal for this kind of diversion) and where airlines continue to be ill prepared to respond to passenger needs during such events.  Might I point out that I would find it extremely hard to believe that someone couldn’t deliver a little food or attach ground air conditioning (if that airport has it) or a ground power unit (which I’m sure they have) to help provide power for air conditioning?

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