New Ridesharing Model? Airline Diverts International Flight To Drop Pilot At Work

Filed Under: Virgin Atlantic

Reader Nick emailed to share an experience he had on yesterday’s Virgin Atlantic flight from London to Boston. There are lots of reasons for flights to be delayed and diverted, but this is one of the most unusual I’ve heard.

Yesterday’s flight VS11 from London to Boston made a stop in Manchester in order to drop off a pilot who needed to work a different flight. At check-in, passengers were given a letter outlining the delay, so clearly this was decided on in advance. Per the letter:

Your flight to Boston will be operating via Manchester today. In order for us to ensure our customers are able to fly from Manchester to New York today, we need to fly one of our pilots to Manchester. We have looked at other options to achieve this, but this is the only option available to use. You will remain on board the aircraft during our short stop in Manchester Airport. I apologise for any inconvenience and disruption this may cause to your journey.

Here’s the flight status for yesterday’s flight from London to Boston, which reflects the Manchester diversion, and the 1hr36min delay it caused:

Meanwhile the Manchester to New York flight that the pilot needed to work was delayed by several hours. It was scheduled to depart at 1:40PM, but only ended up departing at 7:12PM, so it was delayed by 5hr32min. Here’s the status on that:

Now, I’m sure a lot of thought was put into this decision, because diverting a plane isn’t cheap. This no doubt cost them thousands and thousands of pounds.

At the same time, what am I missing here? I get that they may not have had any 787 reserve pilots available in Manchester, so they needed to get one from London. But we’re talking about a distance of 150 miles, a market that has a good number of flights, and that has trains running between the two cities with a travel time of two hours. While BA doesn’t have a ton of flights in the market, they had a couple of flights from Heathrow to Manchester between the time the Manchester to New York flight was delayed, and when the flight ended up leaving.

Like I said, I’m sure Virgin Atlantic had their reasons, I just find this strange. Was the issue really that they couldn’t get a pilot any form of transportation to Manchester, or rather that there’s something in the pilot contract that ruled out the other options (ie, train travel is not an acceptable way of positioning pilots, a pilot needs a flat bed business class seat if they’re deadheading and having to operate a longhaul flight same day, etc.).

Anyone have any guesses?

  1. Typically, most pilots are required (per their contracts) to either deadhead (reposition) on either their own carrier, or must have another ticket bought on another airline to ensure they get to where they are needed. I doubt they were “allowed” to take a train, even if they wanted to. Also, if BA was sold out, a tech stop (diversion) may have been the best option. As crazy as it is, I could see this happening to avoid a cancellation. Not sure if that’s what happened, but that’s about the best reason I can think of.

    For the record, I work in the operations control center for a major US LCC carrier so I see a fair amount of IRROPS.

  2. Put the pilot on a ferrari or a maclaren driven by the stig for faster transport.

    On a side note, maybe it was really a last possible solution for them? Printing out that paper could only take few minutes….

  3. Only thing I can think of is by putting them on VS metal they could sit in the cockpit and it counted as “duty ” whereas their contract wouldn’t have allowed positioning and then working a flight to NYC

    Very unusual though !

  4. Definitely a contract issue. As someone who worked in crew resources I know the train was not an option. The person who stated the crew time could be correct saying that they had to be on their own metal in order to have the flight count. Very strange but I’ve seen just as strange to avoid delays.

  5. Agreed — I believe that when all the costs come out of this they may regret not choosing a more sensible option. Add up:

    – Cost of passenger delay compensation
    – Extra fuel for the stop (if applicable)
    – Cost of wear / tear of 1 unnecessary airframe cycle
    – Overtime of ground staff (if applicable)

    I would guess these add up to many times the cost of even the most expensive option to ferry that pilot (if they had had the time and option to do it).

    It is really odd that they could not have chosen a more economical option, or that they didn’t plan far enough in advance to take care of the need for a pilot…

  6. I’ve had this happen on United. The flight I was on was canceled due to no equipment, so they put all of us on another flight heading the same direction and dropped us off on the way. I checked afterwards on the flight status and it did show a one time flight on the schedule.

  7. @Chris, delays over 3 hours are eligible for compensation under EU261.

    Flight Distance Length Of Delay Compensation Amount
    Up to 1,500km 3 hours or more €250
    1,500km-3,500km3 hours or more €400
    Over 3,500km In EU & >3 hours €400
    Over 3,500km 3-4 hours €300
    Over 3,500km >4 hours €600

  8. There was massive disruption on the train line between London and Manchester on Friday (when this took place). The whole line was shut for several hours as a wall next to the line collapsed. Driving there would have taken at least 4 hours I’m sure.

  9. The only way I can see this being justifiable is if we are looking at the duty hours. By putting the pilot on the flight it cut down in hours of duty as opposed to putting him on ground transportation. An airline pilot is only allowed so many duty hours in one day before he becomes “illegal” to fly without first having rested. It’s a safety measure. This is very important for transatlantic flights which themselves are guaranteed to be lengthy flights. As a former airline employee, I have been in situations where we have been delayed so long at the gate that the crew became ineligible to operate the flight due to the length of the proposed flight and duty hour constraints. And being that we didn’t have an alternate crew in that area, the flight got delayed until we became eligible to operate again which so happened to be the next morning. It’s all about obeying transportation laws. Now I don’t know if that pilot went in to operate the subsequent flight from Manchester given the amount of delay there.

  10. At least the passengers were given advance notice.

    My wife and I flew from Casablanca to Barcelona on Royal Air Maroc back in 2014, and we were diverted to Oujda, Morocco to drop off some Royal Air Maroc crew members–without any advance notice! Ultimately, we were only delayed by about 30 minutes, but the passengers were rather panicked when we started landing at a tiny airport in the middle of the mountains without explanation. The American behind us who fell asleep before takeoff and woke up in Oujda was particularly distraught. No explanations or apologies were ever provided, and neither Royal Air Maroc nor Iberia (who sold our tickets) could be bothered to give a crap when we sent them emails afterwards.

  11. The cost of diverting a international flight has to exceed the cost of a charter jet to Manchester.

  12. As the positioning was on the same day and therefore duty period as the flight to be operated, under EASA rules the duty time will have started at or just before the time of departure from LHR. That is true whatever the mode of transport. The rail services (also owned and operated by Virgin) were disrupted and road travel from Heathrow to Manchester on a Friday afternoon can take 6 hours plus. Also, Virgin do not operate 787s from MAN, just A333s and B744s. None of that fully explains the thinking behind diverting a revenue flight, but it corrects some of the misinformation above.

  13. Huge problems on the roads and rail to Manchester when this happened – I was taking train the train to Manchester, had to re-route to Leeds and it took hours longer than planned. Roads were jammed as the result of rail disruption. Not ideal, but a reasonable way of making sure a plane load of customers were only hours late rather than over a day!

  14. Dave – This is a blog about luxury travel, obviously the problems are going to be “rich people problems”. It’s rather pathetic for people to keep coming to places like this and posting derogatory comments as if this comes as some kind of shock to them…

  15. Pilot needed that hour to fly that aircraft, so they gave him that hour on same model Aircraft. This is on off situation and everyone was taken care of.

  16. Reading the comments on the reasons for VA’s action, the only thing not suggest was an invasion from Mars. No one really knows except VA. And they aren’t talking.

  17. The language in that letter is terrible.

    The assistance of the airline in rebooking connections that will be missed due to an operational decision the airline made is dependent on the type of ticket held – this should be absolute.

    If passengers weren’t given the option of a full refund or alternative travel arrangements at check-in, that’s simply unconscionable.

  18. Simply it was due to flight duty limitation.
    The landing fees, etc. at Manchester would definitely cheaper than flight cancellation.
    For adhoc charter of a biz jet, it could be more expensive than diverting. But I believe the main consideration is on TIME to ensure the position pilot could operate the flight legally.

  19. So yeah, global commercial pilot shortage. When I was trying to get hired back in 2004-2005, there were no jobs, the industry and economy en mass were just getting their fitting after the 9/11 induced slump. There are threebmajor contributing factors to the shortage: 1. The US FAA change in First Officer requirements which requires pilots have 1,500 hours (less in some cases) as a result of the Colgan Airlines Buffalo, NY crash. 2. The FAA’s increase in mandatory retirement from 60 to 65, which caused a labor-pool bubble has caught up. 3. The lack of pilot jobs available throughout most of the 2000’s drove many people (to include myself) away from the career track. That combined with the abysmal pay that First Officers were faced with for the first 5-10 years (after investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in training) was enough to suffocate most people’s enthusiasm for the career. Now airlines are faced with a tremendous labor shortage of a magnitude I never thought I’d see. Thus they are forced into paying respectable/ livable wages and offering bonuses and other hiring incentives!

  20. Purely to do with duty time as a transfer from London would have put him over the allowable duty. Duty starts when you start the travel and is limited dependent on a few factors, start time, sectors etc..
    I suspect the only way he could do that flight duty was to start his day in MAN.

  21. It sounds strange but some of the comments point out there were issues with trains & terrorist attacks/traffic etc. I’m sure there was a contract issue thrown in there as well. I’m guessing that the situation escalating to this point is very rare. If it was a common occurrence then I think they would have a small plane on standby to shuttle crew, but it sounds like this may have been an exceptional circumstance and not an ongoing problem. Why the pilot wasn’t put on one of the other flights is a head scratcher. You would think on such a short hop the pilot could handle an economy seat and one could be freed up by offering compensation to passengers. Diverting an entire flight seems quite absurd and I wonder if anyone missed connections as a result.

  22. @Bill, while I agree with you, we saw what happened the last time an airline needed to get a pilot somewhere to operate a flight….Seriously, though, I’m surprised VS doesn’t have some kind of interline agreement or couldn’t buy the guy a flight on another airline. Surely that’d be cheaper?

  23. Whilst there is a modicum of reasoned speculation on here, the only reason for this action would be flight duty time limitations which are a flight safety issue. Virgin have a pilot base at Manchester but if they did not have enough pilots available on standby, then they would need to position a pilot up from London.

    Normally, a pilot would be positioned up with BA the day before. However, a flight to New York falls comfortably within the flight duty time limitations with enough to spare if they can get a pilot up to Manchester with little advance notice. The pilots flight duty time limitation starts from one hour before the scheduled departure time of the flight to Manchester. The clock is ticking from that moment.

    If there are no charter aircraft available at very short notice and the schedules of other companies flights are restricting (also consider the transfer times between the flights, baggage collection etc.) then there appears to have been no other option. Talking about getting a train or road transport does not even enter the equation, especially when considering the abysmal infrastructure problems here in the U.K., on a Friday.

    In order not to delay the Manchester to New York flight beyond what was reasonably possible, they tried their best to get a pilot to operate the flight. The flight duty time limitations are purely a safety function and cannot be ‘bent’ to suit the commercial operation. The pilot who agreed to operate this duty had probably already agreed to go beyond their labour agreements and everyone concerned was probably doing their best to keep the show on the road for the Virgin customers.

    It was unusual and probably very expensive for the company. However, it is not unprecedented and goes to show the resourcefulness of the employees who are doing their best for the company and ultimately, the customers.

    There will always be some customers who are disadvantaged by actions like this and will rightfully be angry and/or upset. However, in terms of the big picture, the main aim is to get the passengers from A to B as safely as possible.

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