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Ontario Fuel Stop…

April 11th, 2007 · 4 Comments

Commuting from Burbank is normally one of the easiest things a commuter can ask for. After all, being a commuter is all about “perspective.” And believe me, after doing a year’s worth of commuting from LAX to DTW with my first airline, anything that’s shorter is an easy commute. But the travel to work from BUR to PHX isn’t without its occasional pitfalls.

Recently, on a day very similar to the one I described in my “Go Fly A Kite…” entry, I observed an interesting way of working around the problem airlines have operating from BUR during the days when the Santa Ana winds force departing aircraft to use the north-bound runways.

Burbank airport is wedged into the East end of the San Fernando Valley in Southern California. A ridge of relatively high mountains exists that stretches from the north-west to the south-east along the eastern edge of the valley. This terrain presents several problems to large aircraft operating into and out of BUR. Normally, the winds favor the east-bound runway (runway 8) for landings and the south-bound runway (runway 15) for departures, but when the winds blow hard enough from the North, the airport has to be reconfigured to land and depart to the north on runway 33. Because of the terrain that rises steeply to the North of the field (as well as the relatively short runways there), aircraft are often very limited in the amount of weight they can carry out of the airport. Decreased takeoff weights will increase the aircraft’s climb-gradient (a ratio of altitude gained to distance traveled) and allow it to clear the terrain to the North if it were to have an engine fail just prior to leaving the ground. This, of course, is all mandated by FAA minimum performance parameters.

In this image (click to enlarge), you can see BUR in the bottom left corner.
The terrain to the North and East is plainly visible.

In order to arrive at an acceptable takeoff weight, an airline will typically offload cargo first, followed by non-revenue passengers, followed by revenue passengers. Rarely will an aircraft’s fuel load be decreased, because flight segments are normally fueled very closely to what is required to begin with (within FAA standards, of course). Additionally, bad weather at the intended destination can cause an increase in the fuel required to be on-board the aircraft prior to dispatch.

Combining unfavorable wind conditions in BUR and bad weather at the destination can make it extremely interesting for airlines operating out of BUR, and that is precisely what was happening that day. Phoenix was experiencing a rather unusual weather pattern of low clouds and rain, which triggered a requirement for an additional amount of fuel to be loaded onto the airplane over-and-above the norm for a flight between the two airports. Because of the unfavorable winds and the higher-than-normal fuel requirement, the gate agents were forced to remove passengers from the flight in order for it to be light enough to depart. Unfortunately, being a non-revenue traveler, I was one of the people that was pulled from the flight.

Shortly after I was pulled from the flight, Phoenix Air Traffic Control placed a hold on all departures to the Phoenix area. This was due to a thunderstorm that had passed over the Sky Harbor International Airport that had caused a temporary airport shutdown due to lightning. An EDCT (Expected Departure Clearance Time) assigned by Phoenix ATC of nearly an hour and fifteen minutes later gave the crew of the flight I was just removed from an opportunity to re-think their strategy in dealing with their dilemma. And their new plan-of-attack was brilliant!

After conferring with dispatchers, they decided to de-fuel the aircraft to a level that would allow it to land in Ontario, CA with the FAA required reserves on board. The weather was excellent at ONT, which is literally just over the hill from BUR (a flight time of only 11 minutes). This would allow them to carry all of the passengers out of the Burbank Airport that had been removed due to the weight restriction and get them traveling towards their final destinations. After landing in ONT (where terrain and runway length aren’t an issue the way they are in BUR), the aircraft would be re-fueled and would wait-out the remainder of their ATC initiated ground-delay. After that, it would depart for Phoenix.

Carrying out their plan got all of the paying passengers to Phoenix (and beyond) that night. Sure, people weren’t happy with being two-hours late, but they got to their destination in a relatively good mood. Most of the folks on the plane were very understanding of the situation. Flights that were scheduled to depart after ours were booked full and were facing the same dilemma of weight restrictions as ours did, so the chances of anyone from our flight making it out that night would have been very slim.

Above all, though, the solution the flight crew and dispatch came up with that night saved my bacon. Had it not been for them “thinking outside the box” a bit, I would have been stuck in BUR that night and I would have missed the beginning of my trip the next morning. Since that situation occurred, I’ve kept a close eye on the winds at BUR on the days I have to commute to work.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 X-av8r // Apr 13, 2007 at 4:31 am

    Also, RNWY 33 at BUR is an uphill slope. About 115′ higher on the north end. (built into the charts)

  • 2 Edge // Apr 13, 2007 at 11:07 pm

    I love solutions like this. They force you to ask questions like, “Well, if I can’t fly to PHX, where can I fly?”

    ~Jef

  • 3 Aviatrix // Apr 19, 2007 at 1:26 am

    Are you allowed to reuse fuel that has been removed from an aircraft? I have defuelled an aircraft for a flight just once in my career, and it cost the company money because we had to throw the fuel away. (Well actually the mechanics used it in their beater cars, but that’s another story).

  • 4 Nicolas // Jun 15, 2007 at 2:45 am

    Now that is some great problem sloving! I wouldn’t want to try and explain why I am taking a jet for an 11 min joy ride to LA Center but I bet there were a 130odd less pissed campers in the cabin becuase of it.

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