Yesterday, 2nd of March 2020, I was on board of Air Canada flight AC692 from Toronto (YYZ) to St. Johns (YYT). 40 minutes before landing, the plane turned around and flew back to Toronto. The flight time was supposed to be 2:20 hours, instead we flew a round of ~4 hours. The pilot announced that it "unsafe to land" in St John's. But this sounds rather ambiguous to me.

I have a colleague in St John's. He says the there was quite a bit of snow in the morning, but by the time we were in the air, all the roads were clean. This mean they easily could have cleared the runway? Overall conditions weren't too bad and the sky was clear with sun.

Wind would be another condition, but this was a Boeing 777. Those can handle a bit of wind conditions, as opposed to the smaller aircraft types?

  1. Why all the way back to Toronto? Why not divert to Halifax or Montreal and wait until the conditions get better?
  2. I was in the understanding planes don't over-fuel for safety reasons. How did we make it back to Toronto without refueling? If we wouldn't have turned back, would the plane have had too much fuel to land?

I would like to add during the landing in Toronto, flaps were pulled down rather late to my experience. The approach was rather short (in time) and spoilers were used during descend. Also, (almost) no reverse thrust was used used during braking. Does this tell me the plane was running on fumes?

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    $\begingroup$ the METAR from 02/03/2020 20:00UTC (5 minutes after the turn-around): METAR CYYT 022000Z 01019G27KT 15SM -SN OVC009 M04/M06 A2983 RMK SF8 SLP110= $\endgroup$
    – Federico
    Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 12:15
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    $\begingroup$ Of all of the questions like this we get on this site, I’ll admit that this is the best one I’ve seen in a while. Very detailed and light on speculation. +1. Keep ‘em coming! $\endgroup$
    – dalearn
    Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 13:03
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    $\begingroup$ To decipher the previous METAR: wind was from ~north at 19kts, strong gusts (27kts), good visibility, light snowfall. The thing is, the wind and gusts are pretty much perpendicular to the main runway. Still I don't think that's too much for a 777 + a competent pilot. $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ The Runway Surface Condition could have been the reason for the diversion. The B777 is a large, HEAVY aircraft that needs lots of runway, and good braking conditions to stop. Any amount of crosswind just magnifies these challenges. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 14:20

1 Answer 1

  1. Why return to Toronto and not stop on the way:

    • Generally speaking the most probable cause for reverting back to an airport that seems an unlikely choice is that the airline has a base there. From a base airport the aircraft is readily available for other use, and crew rotations are easily managed. In addition to that, if the "unsafe to land" condition was due to a technical issue with the plane, maintenance is secured at a base airport, but not necessarily elsewhere.
    • As Verandaguy pointed out in his comment, Air Canada does have a base at Montreal, which would have been closer to the aircraft at the time of diverting. This being the case, the reason for returning to Toronto is very likely to get the plane and crew to a position that best suits the following rotation of each.
    • We do not know about the flight hours the crew had on them, so diverting to a non-base or non-scheduled airport might have caused serious trouble with continuation of the flight: You might have to fly (or if diverted to a base, call up) a relief crew to the divert airport to fly the plane onward, and the crew with rest period limitation would have to be flown to their "home" base airport. This situation might have arisen at St. Johns after a stopover enroute.
    • While I at first did not think that weather was the reason (ref. METAR posted by Federico), it turned out that runway conditions were not suitable for landing in high and gusting crosswind (comment below by Mike Sowsun, kudos for that). We do not know the weather trend, so flying to, say, Halifax might prove problematic if the weather and/or runway conditions did not get better fast enough (see previous bullet point)
  2. Fuel: too much to land at destination, too little on arrival at Toronto?

    • The reason for not carrying extra fuel is pretty much solely economical: it's a huge waste of money to fly fuel around instead of cargo or passengers. However, while it is true that airlines do not like to ferry extra fuel, an aircraft has all sorts of reserve fuel on board: you carry extra juice for trip to alternate airport, holding at destination or alternate and so on. When a crew decides to divert to an alternate airport, they make sure they choose one that does not result in fuel emergency.
    • It is therefore extremely unlikely that the plane was running on fumes when it arrived at Toronto.
    • Nor is it likely at all that the plane would have been over fueled by mistake. If it had been so, you would most probably just have circled at St. Johns for a while to burn the excess off, or dumped on the way there.
    • The observed use of flaps and/or speed brakes cannot be used to determine the fuel situation of the plane. These are more likely dictated by traffic situation.

As for the reasons for not landing at intended destination: As Mike Sowsun commented below, runway conditions were less than satisfactory, and the captain made the only possible judgement call: high gusty crosswind + slippery runway is a big no-no. A roadside observation cannot be used as a reference when judging what conditions are at an airport, even nearby. I know by experience that local variations in weather can be huge at places such as St. Johns. Also, changes in weather at these latitudes in coastal regions are very hard to predict, sometimes even for such short periods of time as the duration of this flight.

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    $\begingroup$ When you combine the crosswind on Runway 11 with the runway conditions, it is very easy to see why the Captain chose not attempt a landing. You can hear the Runway Surface Condition Report for that period LiveATC.net: "CYYT Runway Surface Conditions for Runway 11 at 17:50z: Center 160' of the runway, 60% wet snow covered 1/8", 25% bare and damp, 15% compact snow. Outside the center-line : 95% wet snow 3 inches in depth, 5% wet snow over ice, 3 inches in depth." (starting at 03:50) archive-server.liveatc.net/cyyt/CYYT1-Gnd-Mar-02-2020-2000Z.mp3 $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ @MikeSowsun very nice find! That would make an answer on it's own I think, as reason for diversion was also kind of asked in the question. $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 20:24
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    $\begingroup$ Worth mentioning that ACA has a base and corporate headquarters at (and very nearby, respectively) CYUL. $\endgroup$
    – verandaguy
    Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 21:17
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks @verandaguy, I'll have to update my answer with that when I have a couple more minutes to spare. $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 22:20
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    $\begingroup$ Given the flight was only two and a half hours long, were these conditions unexpected? Or, why did they just not take off to begin with? $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 22:57

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