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Divert To Kenai – The Postscript (Finally!)

October 23, 2015

Now that I have finally given painful birth to the entire story of our divert to Kenai, I am compelled to tie up a couple of loose ends.

First, I did take a few photos from our predicament.  Most I cannot share due to limitations associated with my employer.  This photo, I can.  It shows the view from our cockpit window looking southeast across the vast parking ramp toward the tiny terminal building.  I shot this just after we arrived at the jet the morning after the divert.


My reason for writing about this whole odyssey was simply because many of my friends and colleagues are professional pilots.  They, too, might find themselves in an intractable situation just like we had found ourselves.  Perhaps a nugget or two of insight or wisdom or absurdity will be remembered.  I certainly will not soon forget the lessons this event richly provided me.

The biggest lesson I learned was based off of my feeling of regret and failure–after being convinced to go, leaving Logan and Kelly vulnerable to punitive action by their supervisors if they chose not to.  They were just doing as they were trained.  So was I, initially.

But I should have stood up for the two of them.  How?

I should have walked off the airplane. Packed up my stuff and trundled off into the terminal. “Find someone else to fly the plane,” is what I would have said.

Really, nothing punitive was going to happen to me. My job was safe. I had all the legal, procedural and ethical right to do so firmly on my side.

Of course feeling the wrath of 75 customers would not have been terribly enjoyable—there was little space for me to hide in the Kenai terminal building. Word would have traveled quickly. I would have had a big red target on my head for everyone to shoot at.

But…my actions would have bluntly shown to my airline just how unsatisfactory Kenai served as a “legal alternate” for poor weather in Anchorage. Yep, doing so was legal and safe. We did arrive in Kenai with no issues other than poor weather in Anchorage.

However, soon after that, the prickly enormity of our problems began to manifest. No dedicated ground personnel to assist us. No lavatory service. No jetway. Only one fuel truck. Most of all, no TSA security. Because if there was a problem with something of ours—a mechanical problem with the plane, serious weather conditions or, what ultimately befell us—a duty time issue—we would be sunk.

And so would another of our company aircraft if they had the misfortune of having to divert to Kenai.

Which leads me to another point. As used, our Boeing 737 aircraft is sometimes a poor choice for this route—at least from a standpoint of flight range. We really and truly had only one legal alternate that night with the forecast weather for Anchorage—Kenai. We did not have the range to legally fly to Fairbanks—a much more suitable alternate airport had we needed it. And this cold, snowy evening in March of last year, we did.

What could the company have done in this case? They could have planned on us stopping for fuel somewhere along our route, short of our destination. This, too, is not so simple. It adds flight duty time and complexity to our day’s mission. Still—the ramifications of diverting to Kenai easily surpassed any 45-minute “tech” stop in Edmonton or Winnipeg for extra fuel.

Other technical gotchas reared their ugly heads. Captain John and I knew next to nothing about the Kenai airport before having to divert there. What little our company provided us regarding airport facilities really was after the fact. No facilities for our passengers if we get stranded there? Really? Then why the hell are we using it as an alternate anyway?

Two words: economic convenience.

Kenai works as an alternate “on paper”. As I said, over 99% of all our flights land at the intended destination. That’s pretty damn good. Rare is the flight that has to divert, but it does happen. However, landing in Philadelphia instead of New York City is much, much less of a hassle. There are more facilities there, more options, better care. In Kenai, uh…not so much.

This economic convenience—given the high likelihood of completing the flight as planned, makes listing Kenai as an alternate a compelling choice. “You won’t actually be going to Kenai!” our flight dispatchers would crow. “You’ll be landing in Anchorage!”

Of course we will, silly us.

Mother Nature had a different plan. It was up to us—John, our dispatcher and me, to figure out a Plan B—before we left O’Hare. But we didn’t. And so it went.

Economic convenience also defined the company’s insistence that we just fly our plane and passengers up to Anchorage without the screening. Getting three chartered buses down to Kenai would have cost money. And time.

But when this same company sends an aircraft like the Boeing 737 on a mission like this because the economics of operating said plane (as opposed to the Boeing 757, which used to operate this route), they should pony up the cash to pay for the occasional interruption to service. In other words, pay for buses. It’s the cost of doing business, simple as that.

But I don’t work in the rarified air of our company finance department. I’m just a pilot, a worker bee.

I did decide to buzz over to Cam’s office to discuss what had transpired in Kenai. I was especially disappointed with his lack of support to what I was describing to him. Disrespecting me aside, my points I raised to him were essentially dismissed.

I flagged him down in our Flight Operations area. “Hey Cam, can I speak to you, in private?”

“Sure, sure! I’m Cam! Have we met before?”

He didn’t know me.  I guess I was just a voice on the other end of the phone, though he could have found my employee photo in the company directory.  But he was all courtesy and friendliness just like he was on my first call with him up in Alaska. He motioned me to join him in his office. I shut the door behind me.

I introduced myself to him, mentioning that I was the First Officer on the flight that diverted to Kenai. It was only a week or two since I returned from that trip.

“I’ve been so busy around here…so much going on.” He paused, looked off into space, then…

“Oh yeah, I remember you now! Tough day that day!”

Yeah, tough day. Kinda.

I didn’t waste any time explaining to him how poorly supported I felt that day. Briefly rehashing all that had transpired, I summed it up. “I should have walked off the plane after what you said to me.”

He was taken aback again. Eyebrows raised, forehead wrinkled. When he spoke, his response was more backpedaling; more explaining how much work had taken place ‘behind the scenes’ there that day. I had heard it all before. Good grief.

I brought up the fact that the 737 wasn’t then and still isn’t the ideal aircraft for this route when Kenai is the planned alternate. Like a good middle manager suddenly pressed into a corner, Cam flipped my issue back at me. He responded that I should write down my opinions about this and then he would present it to the powers that be higher up on the food chain.

I just shook my head. I knew why he was saying this. He just didn’t want to have to deal with what I was accusing him of, nor did he wish to do the legwork associated with seeing the issues I raised reach a conclusion. He might be asked why he did what he did and said what he said that day to me.

“Why do I have to do all the work?” is all I could think. Shouldn’t this be his responsibility? I guess I now know the answer to this question.

Disappointed with my meeting with Cam, I decided the best way to make people aware of this weakness in our Chief Pilot’s Office was to tell as many other pilots about what had happened that day. I filled out formal written reports, carefully entering them into two separate databases. One would go to our pilot union; the other would go to our event reporting division of our flight safety department. The latter is shared with the FAA. Hopefully these reports would help trigger some change in our company procedures here.

I resumed flying my typical 80 to 90 hours a month. Most every Captain I told my story to just shook their heads in disbelief. Only one or two disagreed with what I had done (or not done). But all agreed that this was an isolated event, though likely to happen again somewhere, at some other equally dubious “paper alternate” airport.

Finally, I did run into two of the four flight attendants from that day, Logan and Heath. Logan, the man who brought up his objections first, saw me about a month later. He never heard a word from the company about what had happened that day. Heath had the same story. As I said, I didn’t think much would happen to them regardless, but I couldn’t guarantee this. The fact that the flight ultimately operated and our passengers got to where they were going was probably the reason here more than anything else. I’m happy of course that the company chose not to dole out any punishment.

Our travails found their way into public media the next day. Front page news on the local Kenai newspaper, and at least a few minutes of videotape from the local Anchorage television station. It didn’t make my company look terribly favorable—especially when they described the fact that most of our customers slept the night on the floor of the airport terminal.

We found out that quite a few other aircraft had diverted away from Anchorage that night. Most went to Fairbanks because they had the fuel to do so. Some equally long-haul flights that night were operated by Boeing 757s, an aircraft with much more fuel capacity. Not our company, given their economic leanings.

Finally, approximately two months later, a policy change was issued regarding flights outside of the contiguous 48 states to any destination requiring an alternate airport due to weather or other operational restriction. Essentially, the procedure now is for the Captain to verbally speak with their specific dispatcher (we have hundreds of dispatchers) in order to discuss alternate airport options and any contingencies that might benefit the situation.

This is good news, but Kenai is still used as a listed “paper” alternate airport for Anchorage. Many dispatchers have no knowledge of what happened to us that night in Kenai. Many pilots don’t, either.

One day I will earn the privilege of commanding a Boeing 737. Most likely I will one day fly back to Anchorage. But wherever I go, wherever I have to divert, I shall recall what I went through at Kenai. And I will back up my crew if there are sensible objections. And if I have to walk away from the airplane as my ultimate protest, I will do just that.

Thanks to all of you for reading this, my blather about the esoteric workings of a diverted airline flight to the middle of nowhere.  But also thanks for sharing your thoughts and interest.  Above all, I have much gratitude to you all for being patient with me while I tried to find the time and place to write this down.

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