“Your flight has been delayed…”. Being a passenger on a flight that is delayed or even cancelled is very annoying, but the crew also faces some challenges in such situations. Here is a glimpse about what happens behind the scenes (and closed cockpit doors).
When asked by passengers why a particular flight is delayed, there is sometimes just no good answer. Most of the time the inbound aircraft arriving from another airport is already delayed by some minutes, which makes the time for all ground duties (loading and unloading, cleaning, catering, crew change, etc) very tight. The reason for those delays is sometimes the dense arrival traffic in Zurich, a slow boarding at the departure airport or passengers not showing up, therefore making a baggage search necessary. Especially during wintertime such delays can accumulate during the course of the day and combined with de-icing and unfavourable departure slots your pilots and crew cannot do a lot against it.
Besides those small and sometimes hard to explain delays there are also the really major delays, which are xplainable but way more disturbing. Such a delay happen very rarely, but when it does, it is then most likely due to a technical problem with the airplane. For us pilots the safety of our passengers, crew and airplane is always the first priority. That is why we involve the maintenance team right away to help us solve the problem and to coordinate the next steps, from a small system reset to changing the aircraft, which is the worst case option.
This was also the case on one of my flights during the winter. We were scheduled to leave Zurich late in the afternoon for a flight to Madrid and fly from there to Geneva. We left the gate on time and were on our way to the departure runway when we experienced a technical problem with one of our engines. We stopped the aircraft, shut down the engine and contacted our maintenance team. It soon became clear that we would have to change our aircraft as a repair would have taken too long. Not only Madrid had to be reached, but we had to think of the second flight to Geneva, where sooner or later a night ban would come into effect. At that point the work of organising the aircraft change began.
In such a case a lot of things have to be thought of. Is another aircraft available and where is it? When will it be fuelled with the amount needed? Is the loading crew present to transfer everything? Do we need more catering? Is a new loadsheet or flight plan needed? While the Captain stayed in contact with our operations control and briefed the passengers, I organized the whole fuelling, loading and catering issues, ordered a crew bus for our transfer and stayed in contact with the mechanics who were still checking the engine. The Captain instructed the passengers to proceed to the new gate without delay and not to stop at the duty- free shops, and amazingly everybody boarded the new aircraft on time.
In the meantime it had started to snow in Zurich and so after preparing everything again, we first had to de-ice our plane to be ready for a high speed flight to Madrid. We organised a very quick turnaround there and managed to get an extension for the Geneva night ban of 30 minutes, just long enough for the flight not to be cancelled. After another high speed flight we landed in Geneva only 5 minutes before airport closure. This was a by-the-book example of how a system failure can affect the whole operation and how the many tasks that arise are managed. We were glad that everybody involved performed so well and enabled us to make the arrival in Geneva before the night ban.
By the way: In the end it turned out, that the engine problems were caused by a faulty EIU (Engine Interface Unit). The EIU is responsible for transmitting engine parameters to another system called “FADEC” which manages and controls the whole engine, from ignition to shut-down.