12
$\begingroup$

I once headed to the airport during a huge thunderstorm with winds above 55 knots and massive rain and some small hail. At the airport, I saw that most flights were delayed or even canceled. To my surprise, my flight was still planned to depart on time. At the counter, I got the information that it was up to the pilots to make the decision if they want to delay or if they what to depart during the storm.

My flight was only a short hop of about 50 minutes and given the direction of the storm it was pretty clear that the storm would reach the destination at the time of the scheduled arrival. And this is exactly what happened. It was the most turbulent, terrifying and scary flight I ever had.

In the last two days, there was another windstorm in Europe with winds above 60kts. The news reported that some airports were closed but there are also videos on Youtube about planes landing during that storm.

My question is: Is it really only up to the pilot to make this decision? Who else might make that call? The airline? The airport? Are there official rules about departing in such conditions?

$\endgroup$
2
  • $\begingroup$ As the question will still be valid and read in several years, you may precise dates when speaking of "the last two days" $\endgroup$ – Manu H Feb 11 '20 at 8:30
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ @ManuH The date of the post is clearly visible if someone wants to figure it out several years from now, and this specific event (Storm Ciara / Sabine) is not really at the heart of the question. $\endgroup$ – TypeIA Feb 11 '20 at 8:36
15
$\begingroup$

Who else might make that call? The airline?

Yes, if the airline thinks the weather is too bad at a particular airport for safe operations, it can just cancel all flights from that airport without asking the pilots.

The airport?

If the airport closes completely, then it is closed. No flights can depart any more, even if the pilots consider it safe.

Is it really only up to the pilot to make this decision?

If neither the airline cancelled the flight nor the airport has closed, it is indeed up to the pilots, or more specifically to the PIC (Pilot In Command, the Captain on an airline flight). They are ultimately responsible for the safe operation of the aircraft and have to make the decision:

4.5.1 The pilot-in-command shall be responsible for the safety of all crew members, passengers and cargo on board when the doors are closed. The pilot-in-command shall also be responsible for the operation and safety of the aeroplane from the moment the aeroplane is ready to move for the purpose of taking off until the moment it finally comes to rest at the end of the flight and the engine(s) used as primary propulsion units are shut down.

(ICAO Annex 6 Part 1 - 4.5 Duties of pilot-in-command)

The SIC (Second In Command) also gets a say in this because of crew resource management, meaning if they think it is unsafe to depart, they can and should speak up.

Are there official rules about departing in such conditions?

The respective national aviation authority may have rules on when a departure is permitted, but this will depend on the exact location. The pilots will however have received rules and training from their airline, which should indicate when a departure is allowed. The most important aspect to consider are the aircraft limitations. There is no legal crosswind limit for a takeoff, but e.g. the Boeing 737 FCOM lists a demonstrated value:

The maximum demonstrated takeoff and landing crosswind is 33 knots.

(Boeing 737 NG FCOMv1 1.10.2 Limitations - Operating Limitations)

It would be considered unsafe to depart with a stronger crosswind.

Note that limitations for landing are typically stricter than for departure and the pilots are legally required to check the expected weather at the destination airport before departing.

In Europe, Eurocontrol can also delay a departure due to expected weather en-route or at the destination airport. See What is the difference between en-route delays and airport delays?.

$\endgroup$
3
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Good point on the CRM factor - the Pilot Not Flying should feel empowered to speak up if they don't believe continuing with the take off is a prudent thing to do. $\endgroup$ – Canuk Feb 11 '20 at 8:58
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It should be pointed out that the pilots, although they have the final authority of making the decision, will never (as I think should be happening) take a risky desicion which will break the rules of the limitations given by Boeing or the company which also has the authority to make its rules of operation more restrictive but never less restrictive. For example, unfortunately, in this last accident with Pegasus (although the investigation is not over yet of course), the pilots landed with winds of 22 gust 30, almost complete tailwind. First- it's almost past the limitation (15 tail). $\endgroup$ – Stan Feb 11 '20 at 9:04
  • $\begingroup$ Second- the pilots could have taken a decision not to attempt a landing in this situation at all, and nobody would have judged them for the worst. In the end, it's a matter of the Captain's judgment exactly in those cases where it's not past the limit but will definitely be a nonsafe landing/takeoff- and that is exactly his job because the tower won't stop you from making mistakes all the time, it's not their life on the stake with the gusts pushing them off the runway. $\endgroup$ – Stan Feb 11 '20 at 9:08
3
$\begingroup$

At the end of the day, the final authority on making, or not making the flight has to rest with the pilot. If you reverse the question, and a pilot thought that it wasn't safe to go, but there was an outside force saying they had to go, that wouldn't be ideal either.

Since you didn't mention specifics, there isn't a way to dig into other specifics, but airlines, charter operators, flight departments, etc, may have published (often just internally - they don't share these), established Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that have guidelines regarding visibility and wind speed, runway conditions, etc, that must be at or better than in order to take off, but even in that there is a level of subjectivity to the decision to take off.

If we look to the FAA, the guidance is in 14 CFR 121.651 (I know your question mentioned Europe, but it's probably pretty similar). It really doesn't talk about wind, just visibility. You have to be able to see at least parts of the runway environment.

Depending on the aircraft, there might be other considerations: maximum demonstrated crosswind, for example.

You don't really know what it's going to be like until you're in it, and pilots seem to be pretty optimistic people. So, if the weather data is stale, and the storm looks like it's moving through on radar, then there is a pull to make the flight.

So to answer your question: there may be Standard Operating Procedures or airframe limitations (crosswind, etc), but if those aren't a factor, the final call is up to the pilot.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.