"That was a rough one"

I flew back from Washington/Dulles to Ottawa this morning as a passenger on an Air Canada CRJ. Things didn’t look promising — when I arrived at the airport after an early-morning drive in pouring rain, the ticket agent told me that the Montreal flight had been cancelled. Montreal and Ottawa are close, and usually share the same weather — soon I overheard other passengers saying that the problem was freezing rain, which suggests a (widespread) warm front, confirming my fears. Next, the gate agent announced that the flight was overbooked.

I’ve often heard overbooking announcements for other airlines, but in the 240,000 or so air miles I’ve accumulated on Air Canada, I’ve never heard it from them. Nobody volunteered to give up a seat, and in the end, no one was bumped, so it seems that the problem wasn’t a lack of seats. The captain was talking with the gate agent soon afterwards, and I overheard the phrase “because we have to go so far to the alternate.” So here we hit quandry #1: the captain (or dispatch) wants to pick an alternate well clear of the weather system, requiring extra fuel; however, the captain also wants to fly as light as possible, to reduce approach speed and landing distance on an icy runway. Loosing 400 lb of passengers + coats + luggage must have seemed like as good an option as any, even if, in the end, it didn’t fly (so to speak).

A short while later, the gate agent came on the PA and said that anyone who was on the Ottawa flight last night will have their bags checked on this one automatically. It turns out that last evening’s flight to Ottawa was unable to land because of the freezing rain, and flew all the way back to Dulles. So now, we have an icy runway at destination combined with the weight of extra fuel, a full plane, and lots of checked baggage. Once we were on the plane, the captain came on the PA and said that he recognized some of the passengers — it was the same flight crew that had to return the night before, flying many of the same passengers, so the pressure on the captain must have been far above normal.

Dulles was surrounded by thunderstorms and towering cumulus, but there was nothing too close to the airport, so planes were departing (though we did have a runway change and a 30 minute taxi). During climb (which was slower than optimal, due to the weight), we were in nearly continuous moderate turbulence, with uncommanded rolls left and right. We finally topped out the weather (mostly — we still hit the tops of some high clouds), and the irresponsible couple who had been too cheap to pay for a seat for their toddler had somehow managed to hang on to the poor, crying child all the way up.

All the while, the captain was coming on the PA giving us regular weather and turbulence updates, as well as warning us that we might not be able to land at Ottawa. I appreciated being informed, but I imagine that the main purpose was to relieve pressure on himself to complete the flight by involving us more in his decision making — I do the same thing with my (1-3) passengers in my Warrior. We weren’t long at cruise before the descent started. There was light with occasional moderate turbulence on the way down, but now, the real problem was the risk of severe icing. As long as the plane was moving fast, it was unlikely that ice would be much of a problem, due to heat generated by the air’s friction. However, now we hit what I imagine was captain’s quandry #2: a fast approach will reduce the risk of ice but increase the landing distance on an icy runway, while a slow approach will increase the risk of ice but decrease the landing distance. Neither one is a happy prospect.

On top of everything else, it turned out that we had a low ceiling. I didn’t see the ground (looking straight down) until about 400 feet AGL, and even then, it was intermittent — I started to wonder whether the flight crew would see the approach lights in time. They did, however, and we landed, using most of the 8,000 foot runway (lots of reverse thrust but little braking, as far as I could tell). There was still one problem, though — while the runway was OK, the apron was so badly iced up that it wasn’t safe to pull up to our gate (unless we wanted to crash the nose into the terminal building, like in the Airport movie). We waited for 10 minutes or more while ground crews worked on that, then gingerly taxied up and deplaned.

On my way out of the plane, there was a whole lot that I wanted to say to the flight crew. I wanted to tell them that I was grateful that they were making the hard decisions and checking and rechecking METARs, TAFs, PIREPs, etc., while I could just sit back and read. I wanted to tell them that I know what kind of pressure they were under to complete the flight, and that I thought they’d handled it gracefully. I wanted to tell them that they didn’t have to apologize so much for turbulence, because passengers don’t mind as much as pilots imagine they do (I’ll have to remember that one myself). I wanted to tell them that I knew that their margins were far thinner than usual, but that I still felt safe back in the cabin (though I couldn’t prevent myself from checking the wings for ice buildup, just out of habit).

There were other passengers lined up behind me, though, desperate to deplane, so I just stuck my head around the corner and said “Thanks — that was a rough one.” They both turned around, smiled, and then laughed. “Yeah,” said the captain.

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