Why'd we taxi for so long, and where the hell were we?

We came in last night, later than usual because of a mechanical problem on our flight. We had to go back to Portland for them to check a sensor so we arrived in Chicago 2 1/2 hours late. Before we landed the pilot told us we’d be taxiing for about 5 minutes after we landed. We landed. And we taxied for closer to 10 - maybe more. It seemed as if we were taking a tour of the airport. Hard to see but it seemed as if we were just going back and forth, visiting outposts at O’Hare, seeing the sights, and maybe staying out of the way of the regularly scheduled traffic. Was that only because they hadn’t planned to take a plane in at that time so they had to clear a space? If so, why couldn’t we just duck in any place that an airline had a door open? Seems as if a reciprocal system for cases like that might make an airport work more efficiently. Or was there another reason we took that tour?

Maybe the plane landed at the wrong airport and had to take the freeway back to where it needed to go. Planes have landed at the wrong airport before. :stuck_out_tongue:

On a more serious note, looking at O’Hare on google maps, I can see that if you land on certain runways and other runways are busy, they may taxi you to hell and back to get you to where your gate is, especially if your gate happens to be one of the farthest from that runway.

O’Hare is one of the busiest airports in the world. I imagine that scheduling gates there is a nightmare and I doubt that they had any gates just left open and available. Even if they did, I believe airlines also lease gates, so they can’t just park you at some other airline’s gates just because they happen to have an opening.

Remember, they aren’t just landing. They will be boarding new passengers and departing from that same gate. That has to be scheduled as well.

Taxiing at O’Hare is always a chore. Some parts of the place are just laid out really inconveniently.

Dallas also. Seems you can taxi for hours after you land. I’ve been on flights where the cabin crews make jokes about it over the intercom. Also possible ground control sent Major Tom first to one gate, then changed their mind and sent him to another. I’ve been on flights where that happened.

mind the gap

Whenever you arrive at a time significantly different from your scheduled time, the airline has a problem. They try to keep all their gates busy all the time. Each one rents for many 10’s of thousands of dollars per month. So they don’t rent very many spares. So when you arrive at the wrong time, odds are there are already airplanes in all their gates. So you have to wait.

The good news is of you arrive real late, like after 9pm, the day’s work is almost done and at least some gates will be unoccupied. Although most gates will have an airplane sitting at them overnight.

If there is no gate available after you land, you’ll either be taxied around to waste time until one becomes available, or you’ll be shunted off to a holding pad to sit and wait until a gate does become available. The holding pad is the preferred option, unless they’re already all full of other aircraft. Which can happen for a weather situation, but is unlikely in your case.

The other issue is that O’Hare is big. And busy. If you arrive at the right (wrong?) time, it can take 15 minutes just to taxi normally to the gate. I flew in there a few days ago and we were planned (I just checked) for 12 minutes from landing to parking. At an off-peak time.

Finally, O’Hare has one runway that’s way out in left field so to speak. If you land on that one, it takes about 5 minutes just to taxi back to the edge of the rest of the airport. Once there you still have the more typical 10-15 minute taxi the rest of the way to the gate.

So then why did your pilot say it’d take 5 minutes to get to the gate? Habit. That’s a good round number for smaller airports, and if somebody is just delivering their standard spiel it’s easy to say something like “We expect to touch down at 45 after the hour and park about 5 minutes later at 50 after the hour. Thanks for flying ABC Airlines today.”

Especially when late there’s a (bad IMO) habit of trying to minimize the lateness using wishful thinking. We hate being late at least as much as you do. It feels like helpless failure to us. And we do take it personally. And although we do what we can to make up time, it’s rarely going to be enough. So some folks succumb to the emotional appeal of pretending the problem isn’t as bad as it is. So they’ll be overly optimistic on how much time they’ll save enroute and maybe on how short the taxi will be, and maybe will assume a gate will be available when a more sober analysis would say the odds on that are slim.

We’re pretty coldly rational about operating the aircraft, planning fuel burn and time enroute accurately, etc. But when it comes to customer service, the urge to sugar coat the bad news is hard to resist. Unhelpful IMO, but hard to resist nonetheless.

If the airliner lands late, or too early, then there may not be a gate available. So they have to burn up some time waiting for a gate.

I see LSLGuy beat me to it.

Just to clarify what** LSLGuy** said, airlines lease their gates from the airport. So let’s say your airline leases four gates in Terminal A, blue concourse. If those four gates are occupied, they have to decide whether to wait until one of their gates opens up, or “borrow” a gate from another airline, which also means getting their baggage handlers, gate attendants, maintenace crew, etc. over to that gate, then getting the airplane and crew out of there so the other airline can have its gate back. Not as easy as finding a parking space in a crowded lot.

Last year we flew into CDG. We spent so long taxiing that I suggested that they were taking us for a tour round the peripherique.

In Rome, the plane stopped fairly soon, but the subsequent bus ride seemed to go on forever.

International airports are big places.

You might have had the rare distinction of taxiing in two counties. Part of the OHare runways are in DuPage County, but most travelers just get to ride around in the Cook County part of it. So, if you’re keeping track of all the counties you’ve visited, check off DuPage.

LSLGuy how long before the decide to bring the stairs and the bus?

I believe you’re trying to ask about the situation wherein a gate, any gate, simply isn’t available in any reasonable timeframe and we’re essentially trapped on the aircraft after landing.

As of a couple years ago new regulations on this topic were developed for flights in the US. I can’t speak to other countries’ practices.

For domestic arrivals we’re required to afford the passengers an opportunity to deplane within 3 hours after landing. For international arrivals it’s 4 hours. The only safe-harbor exceptions are where it’s impossible to offer deplanement due to safety or security reasons. Absent those exceptions it’s a pretty stiff fine for non-compliance.

Food and water need to be provided to all passengers at 2 hour intervals. Reasonable cabin temperature, ventilation, and functioning lavatories also need to be continuously provided.

About the only time this scenario plays out is when severe snow impacts a large airport and gridlock sets in. This is what we call a real cluster****.

In that case the gates are full of aircraft that can’t leave and the taxi areas are full of landed aircraft that can’t park. And the various vehicle roadways are snowed over as well. And typically the airline is operating short-staffed since many employees were unable to get to work over the snow- and traffic-choked roads.

Unloading a 737 sized airplane and all carry-on luggage takes 3-4 bus loads using full-sized urban transit busses. Using hotel-shuttle sized busses it’s more like 10-12 bus loads. A 777 or 747 takes 8-10 big bus loads or 20-30 small bus loads. There may be only a few such busses and drivers available between all airlines at the entire airport. Even a very large airport like O’Hare only has holding areas available for 10-20 airplanes at a time. And some of these are located at runway end and will be being used to deice running aircraft. Pedestrians on the ramp are at huge risk with running aircraft nearby.

Many otherwise capable ordinary adults cannot safely negotiate air stairs while carrying their luggage in a snowstorm. Nor are folks inclined to leave their carry-ons behind. Nor do I blame them for that. Elderly and handicapped need to be removed one at a time using a wheelchair and a special chair elevator. That’ll be 2-10% of the passenger load depending on destination. Small children are another challenge, and again are 2-10% of the passenger load.

It can easily take an hour and a crew of 10-15 ground folks to unload the cabin of a single 737-sized aircraft. Figure 2+ hours and twice as many crew to offload a 777/747. We’ll typically skip dealing with all the belly baggage until later as the same ground crew is needed to unload the passenger compartment of the next airplane in line.

As I say, this is a recipe for some hazard and much misery for all concerned.

Far better if at all possible to wait for a gate & offload the conventional way.

And Atlanta. From the time we backed away from the gate until the pilot hit the throttle on takeoff seemed like 15 minutes. I wondered for a while if he was just going to drive to Ft. Lauderdale.

At one point, I thought I saw a road sign for Dubuque.

When that happens, look outside and see if the weather is so bad that the birds are walking. If so, then the pilot is probably considering the driving option.

Three hours? Barring a major event like a hostage scene in the terminal, any airline that still has me in the plane one hour after landing is going to to have some serious problems with me. I can (almost) understand long delays before taking off, but if we’re on the ground and at our destination, I expect concentrated efforts to get the plane unloaded. On the positive side, I haven’t had a problem with this, and I fly a lot. I assume the airlines would want to avoid long delays before deplaning almost as much as the passengers.

15-20 minutes is considered 100% normal for taxi-out at a big hub airport. That’s with no extra special traffic, nice weather, etc. Add weather, traffic problems, etc., and it just goes up from there.

Exactly. We, and our management, don’t like folks stuck on airplanes either. The regulations are intended to prevent well-intentioned people in a tough spot from creating the slowly growing interminable delay that morphs into effectively a hostage situation. Believe me when I say we’ll be trying real hard under almost any circumstances to get you off the jet a lot sooner than 3 hours after landing.

But …

I recall a scenario a few years ago, long before these regulations came into effect. We pushed back at the hub and got in line to take off. Which line of jets was not moving because thunderstorms had camped at the end of the runway and nobody was flying. 3 hours later the line of thunderstorms just kept sliding serenely along, just a mile off the end of the runway. The weather was ok where we were, but takeoffs would have been somewhere between reckless and suicidal. An hour later some airplanes began to run low on fuel, and couldn’t take off without first returning for more gas. But they were trapped in the line of nose-to-tail airplanes. Even though there are side taxiways to pull out of line only 1 of roughly every 5 airplanes is alongside one and can maneuver out of line. The other guys were stuck until the line moved or they could persuade 4 other jets in front of them to also pull out of line.

The storms finally moved far enough away from the airport and at 4 hours and 45 minutes after pushback we took off for the not-quite 2 hour flight to our destination. At least it was rough enough that over 20 folks barfed. Out of 150. Just a lovely day at work.

Had we tried to go back to the terminal, it might have taken 2+ hours just to negotiate a path through the gridlock back to the terminal. Meanwhile the airport had been landing incoming jets, including ones who’d diverted, refueled, and then launched again to the hub. So there were no empty gates. Which is the only place to get refueled. The airline diverted a few gates into drop-off points where we could pull in, disgorge the passengers, and then take the airplane off-gate again with just a crew aboard. But each overflow gate can only process about 2 to 2-1/2 airplanes per hour. And we had over 120 airplanes stuck in line.

Not a pretty sight.

My wife flew to China (From Toronto) they were supposed to land in Beijing, but diverted to Tianjin. Tianjin has no Immigration & Customs facilities. Flight crew was past their maximum duty time. No one was allowed to deplane. They sat there for 13 hours after a 13 hour flight. The plane was out of food and water. Babies screaming. When some passengers got restive, a ladder was brought up to the plane. Armed police came on board, told everyone to calm down, then left. Finally a fresh flight crew arrived, and they took off and flew to Beijing.

Three hours is nothing.

One time in Denver, I was walking to my gate and passed another one just in time to hear the desk agent announce (paraphrased): “All passengers heading to San Jose need to go to Gate A to board because the pilot pulled up to the wrong gate.”

Hopefully he knew the way to San Jose.


The Boss was NOT amused when he found out.

Short of wrecking a jet, screwing up a taxi is pretty much the next largest unforgivable sin. The difference in this case is you survive to have that painful meeting with the Boss.