Managing a Diversion

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Despite media attention and the endless stream of complaints leveled at our airlines, the fact remains that we complete the vast majority of our scheduled arrivals, safely and on time. But, there may come a time when you, as the pilot in command in concert with your fellow crewmembers and your dispatch authority, will need to divert. Those who have managed a diversion report that it’s not as straightforward nor as simple as the divert preformed in training. Unfortunately, a divert is a complicated procedure without a comprehensive guide. The following is a quick primer on the basics of the divert.

Within the complexities of the divert, the ultimate and overriding requirement is captain’s authority. By regulation, the pilot-in-command has complete and overall authority in the safe operation of the aircraft. In a threat management environment, the prudent pilot will use every external resource available, but ultimately, the decision to divert remains with the pilot-in-command. 

It’s been a good day to fly, departure was uneventful and you’re pretty confident you’ll beat the latest nor’easter into town. Granted, the forecast is pretty dismal for later in the day, but you and your crew should make it in with plenty of time for the commute home. Your pilot companion for the day pulls up the ATIS and you find that the storm system has picked up speed and your destination airport is now reporting indefinite ceiling 100 overcast, visibility one-eighth mile in heavy snow, with a crosswind that is nearly at crosswind limits. Time to make some decisions. Of course, you have alternates and reserve fuel, but now is the time to begin that assessment of what your next course of action should be.

First, begin a serious dialogue with dispatch. They will have access to more information than you, even with your iPad and all the apps you now carry. They are more likely to have the big picture, or at least a bigger picture than you. There are many considerations with respect to divert variables that your dispatcher can help you with – alternate weather, surface conditions, airport capability, number of diverts the airport can handle, de-icing capabilities, passenger service, customs, and more.

Second, you must command. Admiral Chester William Nimitz, when Commander in Chief of the United States’ Pacific Fleet and all allied air, land, and sea forces in the Pacific, was once quoted “When you’re in command, COMMAND!” As pilot-in-command, once you have made the decision to divert, DIVERT. Have no second thoughts, no second guessing. Confine your thoughts to a safe operation, your only goal, at an airport you (and your crew) were not expecting. The diversion field may be one you have not operated in and may be unfamiliar. After all are safely on the ground, you’ll be asked to deal with all the details of the diversion.

Here are some examples of what you, as pilot-in-command, should think about and review.

1. For passengers, this is a very stressful operation. Your flight attendants will be their point of contact, facing a barrage of questions, for which they won’t have answers. Keep the flight attendants and passengers informed of what measures are being taken for them to complete their journey, and assure them that as soon as you have further information, you will pass it along.

2. Continue to coordinate with your dispatcher. This is your contact point for everything dealing with the divert. Fueling, de-icing, security, and maintenance, all come under the dispatcher’s responsibility. Passenger Service will be involved, so expect them to come looking for answers. Ascertain and inform if there are any special assistance needs or medical issues among the passengers. 

3. In most cases, until decisions are made, you will probably be asked to keep the passengers onboard the aircraft. Be aware of the federal onboard delay limits. There can be steep fines for keeping passengers onboard for an extended period. If your departure was from an international airport, there are special considerations related to customs and immigration that will require all to stay onboard. Again, coordinate with your dispatcher if you will be unable to continue and must deplane passengers.

4. Be patient. Everyone will want answers. In a weather divert, you’ll probably see other aircraft on the ground at the same time. When a hub city’s weather goes down, all services at the station to which you’ve diverted is probably completely overwhelmed. Take a breath to fuel your patience and make good decisions.

There are some airline pilots who have never diverted in their 30+-year careers. Hopefully, you will be one of those lucky few, but the time to consider a diversion is now, when you can review, and ask questions. Your next proficiency check is a good opportunity to ask the check pilot for their insights and recommendations. 

When planned properly and executed professionally, a divert can be handled, never simply or without frustrations, but safely.

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