Sorry Captain, you don’t want to depart because of WHAT?

This morning I opened my Facebook and saw a post in one of the aviation groups which annoyed me, but is a problem in Indonesian aviation, that is when a Captain decides to not depart or delay his departure with an unreasonable excuse and potentially trying to fool the Flight Operations Officer/Dispatcher on duty.

Here’s a summary:

  • The route was Soekarno-Hatta (CGK/WIII) to Bali Ngurah Rai (DPS/WADD)
  • One of the runways at Jakarta Soekarno-Hatta (CGK/WIII) was closed at the time (25L/07R)
  • The weather in CGK/WIII was above landing minima and no other airports open between CGK/WIII and DPS/WADD
  • The captain requested that a take-off alternate be made because, “if anything happens and the remaining runway is closed, I cannot return there, therefore I need an alternate.” He then also quoted an excerpt of the company manual that states: “If airport of departure weather conditions below landing minima of that airport has specified or other reasons, no person may dispatch or release an aircraft from that airport unless the dispatch or flight release specifies an alternate airport located within the following distances from the airport of takeoff”; the captain emphasized that the 1 runway closure and that it was enough to render the flight illegal under “other reasons” in the manual.
  • The Dispatcher then coordinated with Air Traffic Services and received an answer that “under an emergency situation, the closed runway can be opened within 5 or 10 minutes by moving heavy equipment used in a rapid exit taxiway work be moved away from the runway.
  • The Captain then requested a written statement from the ATS because “it was not written in the NOTAM”, and the Captain decided to delay the departure until Surabaya Airport is open so that it can be used as a take-off alternate.

I am quite disturbed by the Captain’s decision. Is he trying to tell us that he wouldn’t depart from other airports with single runways if he has no take-off alternates? If he normally takes off from those runways with no take-off alternates, why not now?

However, I am more disturbed by his request and insistance to designate Surabaya as a take-off alternate. For a two-engined aircraft, the take off alternate should not be further than 60 minutes flight away on one engine. I looked up the Quick Reeference Handbook used for emergencies for the Boeing 737-800/900ER and the Airbus A320, and using the straight line (not airway) distance to Surabaya (374 nautical miles), would take 1 hour 3 minutes and 1 hour 10 minutes respectively. Putting Surabaya as the take off alternate for CGK/WIII would therefore be in contravention to the Indonesian Civil Aviation Safety Regulation, in particular, CASR 121.617(a).

CASR 121.617 on Take-Off Alternate

One of the duties of the dispatcher is to accomodate all request by the technical crew as long as they are within the operational and company limits. “If we are limited and constrained by personal criteria, then we’re not an airline,” said one friend whose job is in flight operations in one of the Indonesian airlines.

As I see it, request such as the above mentioned is a bit ridiculous. The basic principle of aviation safety is to anticipate and manage reasonable and foreseeable factors, not all factors that can come out of anyone’s head. Crew and Dispatchers should also apply the principles of aeronautical decision making process to manage risks as optimally as possible. Requests such as the above mentioned, is so last century! We expect you to know your stuff and not make stuff up!

The question now becomes, why do these silly requests still occur today? I think it does have something to do with today’s operating environment culture where the flight operations team are intimidated by threats from and the ignorance of some of those they interact with, including some vocal members of the regulators and company colleagues who are unfortunately lacking in knowlewdge, whereby when a mishap occur, the regulator’s current approach seems to be “blame and dish out sanctions before analyzing.” As a result, instead of managing risks, this now sour environment is filled with those who’d rather shift blame and wash their hands clean, or those that come up with ridiculous obstacles to seemingly normal stuff (like this case).

Why do I say this? Well, what’s the difference between him departing CGK/WIII with 1 runway closed from departing from other single-runway Indonesian airports where take-off alternates are not available or needed? Nothing. Any runway can be blocked by a mishap at any time, and it does not come under “reasonable and foreseeable” when it comes to flight dispatch… it does for airport emergency teams and route planners, but not for flight dispatch. And we expect pilots to be mature adults not over-aged adolescents.

Then I wonder if the Captain and Dispatcher involved realize that using Surabaya as a take-off alternate for CGK/WIII could technically be illegal? Do they realize that if anything happens and the airplane failed to reach the take-off alternate, the insistance to put Surabaya as a take-off alternate can be deemed as an intention to endanger flight safety? Does the dispatcher also realize that his signature will also be on the Dispatch Release Form?

The irony here is that this excessive paranoia about safety may end up opening new risks and error to the safety of the flight, instead of improving it. To eliminate all risks in a flight is impossible, what is and needs to be done is to manage risk as best as we can using a systematic approach and best practices. If we want to eliminate all risk, the solution is simple: Stop Flying! To move the aircraft even on the ground has its risks. For crew to leave his/her home to the airport also involves risks. Now, let’s eliminate all flight risks and stop flight… let’s just violate the principles of reasonable and foreseeable risk management… are we that immature? Why not, instead, improve safety by being smart and thorough? It’s simpler than you think… if we want to stop blaming.

This article is based on a discussion at the IlmuTerbang Facebook Group (click here to go to the discussion (in Indonesian)).

After Edit: Readers are reminded that 60 minute take-off alternate distance limit and EDTO 60 minute boundary may differ. Many countries and/or companies around the world now use EDTO 60 minute boundary of 410-420NM (or some other number, depending on the approval) as the simplified take off alternate distance limit. However, some countries (including Indonesia) still use the “60 minute OEI cruise speed” distance rule, and some companies have chosen more restrictive distance limits to Take-Off Alternates.
(added 2016-01-20/1532UTC)

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