Friday, January 21, 2011

US Air Flight 3371 PHL-ILM 1/17/2011

This is a summary of the flight chronology along with theories as to why events unfolded the way they did.
Flight information is from FlightAware, other information is from personal observation. I don’t have any information on the time the crew came on duty, but the series of events supports my theory.
The flight was scheduled to depart PHL at 8:55pm but was delayed until 10:13pm due to a snowstorm. At 10:33 the flight leveled out at 33,000 feet and cruised for 26 minutes before beginning its decent to ILM at 11:00. At 11:20 the flight leveled off at 4,000 feet as it was vectored to the ILS approach for runway 6. At 11:30 it began descending on the approach and reached a minimum altitude of 600 feet at 11:36. Given that the Category 1 ILS approach on runway 6 has a decision height of 200 feet the pilot’s claim that he could not see the runway is entirely implausible. Add to this the fact that I made visual contact with the plane as it executed the missed approach procedure and crossed mid-field (at approximately 1,300 feet, according to FlightAware) and the visibility claim becomes even less plausible. For even more damning evidence take in to consideration that I could see the headlights of cars passing perpendicular to my line of sight over a mile away (across the airport) and the story deteriorates rapidly.
Now, all of this wouldn’t be such a big deal except for two issues: (1) The USAir agents that met the plane in Charlotte were as courteous as a pit bull with a toothache and (2) The flight crew was boasting about the fact that they got to go home last night. (It was a Charlotte based crew.) To add insult to injury the most the agents would do for stranded passengers (after midnight, no less) was to provide a voucher good for $7 off a $62 hotel room that, frankly, wasn’t worth $22. It had to be one of the most unkept facilities in the country and it’s amazing that the chain allows this hole-in-the-wall to keep their flag. Then the agents informed the passengers that they would have no access to their luggage – however, when they went downstairs to find the hotel shuttle buses they discovered their luggage on the carousel. WTF?
I have two theories on why events unfolded in this manner.
1) (and most likely) Due to the extended delay in Philadelphia the pilot would have been forced to take himself off-duty upon landing in Wilmington. While this would have been an inconvenience to him it would have only left two passengers stranded, instead of the dozens that were left stranded and forced to fly stand-by back to Wilmington the next day. Based on the behavior demonstrated by the flight attendant after repeated conversations with the cockpit leading up to the approach in Wilmington this is even more plausible.
2) The pilot was afraid that the weather in Wilmington would deteriorate below minimums and he wouldn’t be allowed to take off after landing, again leaving him to spend the night away from home.
As a pilot I certainly respect the Pilot in Command’s right to act in his best judgement. However, the evidence in this situation indicates that this PIC only acted in his best interest, abandoning any concern he had about the impact of that decision on his passengers. Furthermore the USAir gate agent in Charlotte provided poor customer service to a group of people stranded overnight due to the selfishness of their fellow employee.