A reader shares their experience Thursday afternoon departing Austin on United Airlines flight 298 to San Francisco. The flight was delayed, waiting on crew coming off of another aircraft. They boarded about 40 minutes late, and then waited around half an hour for a pilot that was still coming off of another flight. That’s when thunderstorms hit, further delaying the trip by an hour and a half.
They pushed back a couple of hours late. This reader was listening in on air traffic control. They were “fourth in line for departure on Runway 18L.” Three flights took off, then they waiting for three planes to land. “All three performed missed approaches, reporting tailwinds of 20-25 knots.” That’s when things got a bit thorny,
Around 7 pm, UA 298 was cleared for takeoff. Our captain told the tower he was seeing wind shear warnings and didn’t consider it safe to take off. I checked the weather radar and saw a large thunderstorm just south of the airport.
This is where tower safety comes in. The tower controller didn’t pause to assess conditions. Her tone implied, “If you won’t take off, we’ll move on to the next aircraft.” She told our flight to leave the runway and return to the back of the line.
The Southwest flight behind us received the same instruction, with the same outcome. Every waiting aircraft captain declined to depart. No flights took off for 20 minutes after our captain refused.
Twenty more minutes passed, the thunderstorms moved east, and a new tower controller took over. Departures resumed, but we were second to last to leave, right before the Southwest flight that had been behind us.
The reader didn’t mind the extra delay, grateful that the captain prioritized safety. The tower was willing to let planes depart, but more than one captain wasn’t comfortable doing so in the face of missed approaches and windshear warnings.
- It is reasonable for air traffic control to assess the situation, see that it is within normal bounds, but for a pilot to decide they’re not comfortable even if takeoff is technically acceptable.
- Pilots have that discretion and we want them to!
- That’s part of the redundancy that helps make air travel safe. We need both sides to ‘turn their key’. Air traffic control needs to clear takeoff, and pilots generally aren’t going to put themselves in danger, let alone their passengers, though we’ve certainly seen incidents of pilot error.
I wrote recently about air traffic control issues and I think we’ve been getting lucky. I believe this is an area of greater risk than most people appreciate, and we need more than just ‘more taxpayer funding for air traffic control’ that airline CEOs are pushing for. We need to reform the FAA’s air traffic organization so that
- they aren’t regulating themselves, there should be a separate regulator from the service provider even if it’s just moving the responsibilities into separate agencies; and
- better management that’s able to drive forward technology improvements, FAA has been failing at technology upgrades for two decades and is far behind much of the world now.
— gary leff (@garyleff) July 2, 2023
Some pilots think that my criticism of self-serving lobbying by the largest pilot union means I’m somehow ‘anti-pilot’ and nothing could be further from the truth. Being a pilot is one of the best, coolest jobs on the planet, and I appreciate the pilots of the aircraft I’m on every single flight. This is doubly so because there are overworked humans without sufficient technology on the other side of the radio.
Given the risks and cracks we’ve seen in air traffic control, the role of pilots is even more important.