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"Ladies and Gentleman...(gulp!)"

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One of the most daunting aspects of airline flying for newbie Pilots is talking to John and Jane Q Passenger via the PA system. It is especially tough for the ex-military Pilots because they rarely had to talk to the passenger group--if they even had any passengers! At an airline, addressing the passengers is something that happens several times a day. There are two extreme schools of thought regarding PA's:
  • Don't say any more than you have to. ("Hi." And, "Were here.")
  • Give the passengers a nonstop monologue the entire flight.
I have flown with followers of both extremes, and believe it or not, there are passengers who like both extremes. Angling to please the "majority" of the passengers in the middle, I have found a technique that seems to work the best: Frequency and brevity. (At least it yields me the least number of odd looks or cocky comments from my deplaning passengers.) The length of the flight and what time of day it departs all affect what and how many times you will hear from me inflight. Except on early morning or late night flights (say "Hi" and let 'em snooze til we get there), I typically give my passengers the usual information prior to pushback: destination (you'd be surprised!); scheduled flight time; actual airborne time (early estimate); weather en route (if any); destination weather; and any pertinent additional information. Once airborne, if the ride is smooth, I let the turn off the SEAT BELT sign and remind passengers to keep their seat belts fastened at all times when seated. If the flight is less than two hours, I'll probably only point out something outside if it is visible. Telling someone we are over New York City is no fun if you can't see it except perhaps when you have been droning over an undercast for a few hours. Then, a few reminders of where we are are OK. This country is blessed with a great many wonderful things to see out the window. Unfortunately, the Midwest doesn't have many of them. Other than a few cities, rivers, or lakes, the Midwest is one giant farm from Ohio to the Front Range of the Rockies. Going east from the West Coast is tough because you have lots to see for the first hour and a half and then.... Phoenix to Baltimore can get pretty quiet after Colorado except for hourly updates on position and arrival time. Arrival PA's are fairly canned as well: time to take your seats; we are descending where the weather is great and our arrival time; and barring any unexpected Air Traffic Control (ATC) delays, we should be 15 minutes early. The most important part of the arrival PA is the sincere thanks directed at those who make our airline a success. Weather often poses a whole "nuther" set of problems. Often, we are held at the gate in a "groundstop" where we cannot takeoff until a predetermined time set by ATC. The gate personnel will usually pass that information to passengers prior to boarding. If I am at the gate, I will usually pull up the weather on the gate boarding gate podium computer and turn the screen around and brief the passengers who want to know what the delay is all about. That lets the folks know that I would love to board up and go right now, but I cannot. Delays off the gate are far more problematic, especially with the media attention directed at airlines holding their passengers "hostage" onboard the aircraft for several hours prior to takeoff. An hour is my limit. If I cannot reasonably expect to be airborne in one hour, then I will not board and push off the gate. However, when working with ATC, deciding to go or stay is often a  tough call. A few examples: Las Vegas (LAS):   We are heading to Raleigh-Durham (RDU) and are issued a 1.5-hour delay.  We delay our boarding and I brief the passengers at the gate computer. Thirty minutes prior to our ATC assigned flow time (takeoff time plus or minus two minutes), we start boarding up. As we pushback and call for taxi, ATC informs us we are now delayed at least another two hours! I immediately arrange for an unoccupied gate where we deplane passengers and wait. At 50 minutes before our revised flow time, ATC calls and moves our flow time up 30 minutes. Due to a few "missing" passengers we cannot locate in the terminal area, we miss our flow time and are issued another "wheels up time" 30 minutes later. In this case, delay created more delay, and then, an unrealistic shortterm change in flow times made us yet later still. New Orleans (MSY):  As we taxi out for Houston (HOU), ATC calls and advises that HOU is about to start a groundstop due to thunderstorms. We opt to sit on the ground for 30 minutes awaiting an update from ATC. In that time, I advise the folks and then call SWA Dispatch to see what their weather radar shows. His estimate is for no more than 45 minutes to an hour of more delay. Based on that information, we wait at the end of the runway for further developments. I advise my passengers of what I know. At the 30-minute update, ATC extends our groundstop one more hour. I advise the passengers and tell them based on what my Dispatcher has told me, that I believe the groundstop will be lifted well prior to this additional hour delay. Everyone is happy except one passenger who is upset we are not returning to the gate to deplane and wait out the delay. I explain to the passengers that ATC arranges their takeoff priority on those best able to make the soonest departure. If we return to the gate, we will be unable to make an earlier departure should the flow period be shortened and that will mean all the other planes waiting to go to HOU will be in front of us. That will delay us at least a half hour more. As I expected, ATC calls and announces the groundstop to HOU is cancelled and asks us how long it will be before we are ready for takeoff. Five minutes after notification, we are rolling down the runway heading for HOU. Total delay time: 50 minutes, 40 minutes less than the second ATC update told us it would be. LAS:     About to depart LAS for Phoenix (PHX) on the last flight of the night, we are informed by clearance delivery that ATC has issued a groundstop to PHX due to thunderstorms. Our delay is set for at least an hour (according to ATC) with an update at that time. Again, I call Dispatch and ask what the weather situation is in PHX and am advised the thunderstorm dumping on the airport now is almost done and should be moving off slowly to the north. With this information, and the fact that the Operations Agent needs this gate for a flight arriving in about 20 minutes, I elect to push off the gate in expectation of a shortened groundstop period. We advise Ground Control that we have to depart our gate and would like a parking spot close to the runways. They issue us a location, and before we get there, we receive a reroute (alternate flight plan), sending us south and into PHX from the west. We are then informed the groundstop to PHX has been lifted and we are now released to PHX. Because we are the closest to the runway, we are first in line, and ATC asks, "How soon can you be ready for takeoff?" Scant minutes later, we blast off south along the Colorado River, and when I check the estimated arrival time on the Flight Management Computer, it shows we will arrive only five minutes after scheduled arrival time. All because we were ready to go with a good idea what was about to happen in PHX. Southwest Airlines prides itself on keeping the passenger informed. Whether in the boarding area, inflight, or waiting for your bags in baggage claim, we want you to know what we know. It may not be the news you were hoping for, but as soon as we know something, we want you to be aware of it too. We do not like to keep our passengers in the dark. In situations where our departure airport has nice weather but our destination weather is threatening to delay or divert us, I always let the passengers know before departure what we are up against:
  • The weather may go down at our destination (below landing minimums).
  • We have extra gas so we can hold if necessary and wait out the weather.
  • If that doesn't work, we have a good weather alternate and plenty of gas to get there. Once there, we can quickly re-fuel and get back in the game if necessary.
Armed with this information, the passengers know we may have to hold, go-around, or divert. They can make plans accordingly. Once, I was flying from Midland, Texas, to Dallas, and a line of thunderstorms was planned to roll though Dallas about our arrival time. I pre-briefed the passengers on the ground about the delays en route, as well as my idea of how things might unfold. At that time, we had seatback telephones on the plane. Unbeknownst to me, one of our passengers happened to be the president of major oil company,  on his way to a very important meeting. With my advance play-by-play explanation of what was most likely to come; a running account of what was actually happening to us; and the final word that we had been cleared to Love Field after only a short delay, the oil company president was able to call his chauffeur and keep his company appraised about whether or not he was going to make his meeting. He made it and sent me a very nice thank-you letter which pretty much validated in my mind that passengers thirst for the truth in honest updates, not varnished, over-optimistic guesses. When dealing with Mother Nature or maintenance issues, you simply have to expect delays at times. As a passenger, I expect the truth in reasonably frequent updates. And my passengers get nothing less.
30 Comments
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It's incredible how much I learn from this blog. Keep it up!
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Thank you again Capt. Ray. Happy 245th birthday to the sandwich! Ding! boy Joe
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Mmmmmmmmmm. Sandwich. - Homer
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Hi Ray! I wish all airline pilots were like you! on so many other airlines, I've seen the "mushroom policy" applied (keep them in the dark and feed them... well, smelly stuff!). I guess the flighdeck closed door policy has contributed to isolating crews to what's happening round back! So many pilots also seem to be unhappy with their jobs at quite a few carriers other than Southwest - if they don't like it, why don't they move on somewhere else? Over the last 2 days, I have actually experienced the two extremes. Flying to the middle east saturday evening, the captain briefed us on our flight, the routing (flying over Iran instead of Irak!), and that we could expect moderate turbulences 2 hours into the flight. Turns out he was right, and when he flicked on the fasten seatbelts sign, nobody was worried, which was good for those people scared with flying! His flight time of 6 hrs 5 mins was also bang on (I admit I actually chronometered to check how accurate his estimate was!). Whilst out here, I was having dinner in the hotel restaurant, and I was sat next to a group of 6 american pilots, who are sitting aircrew selection panels for a middle eastern carrier. Of course, they talked (loudly) of their respective airlines back in the US, and alas none of it was flattering... To be fair, I was ashamed for them, after all projecting such a negative image reflects badly on a personal and professional basis... I was also extremely dissappointed at the way they referred to their cabin crew (one pilot, who apparently flies Embraer 145's for a major american feeder, was moaning about his one flight attendant on board, with the pool of FA's being too old for his liking). Not something I've ever seen from SWA! It does however serve to confirm my opinion of the great service Southwest provides, both in the cabin as well as on the flightdeck! ... and hopefully, that will never change! ;o)
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Thanks again Capt. Ray! I wish that all pilots would have that great attitude and respect for all as you do.. Guess thats what makes SWA soar high above all the others... Cindy
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Thanks everyone! I forgot to mention the volume control on the PA's is set by maintenance "in the basement" of the aircraft. Some are loud. Some more quiet. Technique in getting your mouth up to the microphone, as well as which mic you choose to use has a big impact on how loud you come across. PA Rule Number One: You can't please all the people no matter what you do! But, you can shoot for what the majority might want. I get quite a few positive comments from people so I must be doing something my passengers like. Ray
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Great job, Captain Ray! All of the Pilots/Captains do a great job keeping us updated. Southwest employees are the best! 🙂 It will always be my favorite airline, & it will be great when I become a member of the fun LUVing Southwest family! You know, this reminds me-last October, I was on my way to CMH (for a CSA group interview!); I changed at MDW & can't remember if it was there or CMH when a flight attendant accidentally announced we were at the gate! We'd taxied off the runway & stopped. I was looking out the window & thinking, "We're not at the gate yet." Then she corrected herself & announced it again when we did actually arrive! :) SWA is So Wonderfully Awesome! (P.S. At my favorite Panera the other day, I had Southwest tomato & corn soup for lunch! I LUVed it because it was good & healthy, & because Southwest is in it!)
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Great Information! I read your book and It had a LOT of valuable information.
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[...] are stuck on planes on the ground for a long time For those 99%, I’d recommend reading this excellent post from a Southwest pilot. He highlights why it can be so difficult to just pull the plane over and [...]
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I'm patiently waiting for my invite to F/A training and I can honestly say that I am thrilled beyond belief to be joining the SWA family one day soon!
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This just goes to show how every piece of the machine comes together to get those beautiful planes off the ground. Where would we be without the good judgment of the captains and help of the dispatchers? It makes me very proud to know that in just six short weeks, I'll be ready to pass my ATP-Dispatcher exam so that I can do my part to help get everyone in the air ON TIME! :-D Cheers!
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So, Capt. Ray, could you please tell us of any occasion where you pulled away from a gate and were stuck on a tarmac because WN wouldn't give you a gate to disembark your pax? To anyone at WN: what is corporate policy as to maximum wait times after pulling away from a gate and delayed departure? What is the longest time allowed on a tarmac?
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Ed, I cannot tell you about the circumstance you cite because in 20 years of flying here at SWA, I have never experienced such a delay. At the most, I have had to wait 20-30 minutes for a gate and that was usually caused by an early arrival on my part when my gate was still occupied by a previous flight. There is no set limit. SWA leaves that up to the discretion of the pilot because, as I tried to explain, the dynamics of delays is an extremely complex issue. We have no policy directive which attempts to curtail our customers freedom to "roam about the country" by keeping them hostage onboard an aircraft. Our job is to get them to their destinations, despite Mother Nature or ATC delays. If all gates are busy -as is often the case when the weather or ATC issues impact flight operations, and I push back opening one up, the next plane waiting for my gate takes it. That means I will get in line for the next available gate if I need to return for a lengthy time. In the past, I have left the wait period up to the passengers. If they want to go out and wait on board the plane in hopes of getting airborne, I will do that too. Weather or ATC issues change rapidly and it is best to make a decision based on good information as things unfold. My personal goal is to get airborne in an hour or less. If things delay slightly, I can accept that. If a flow or "gear up" time is so far in the future that we have hours yet to wait, there is no reason to depart the gate with passengers. An alternate option is using air stairs to deplane passenger adjacent to a gate. Not all locations have airstairs though. Ray
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Another great post Captain Ray, thank you for the education! I see that you avoided pilot "Humor" ; that would seem to be a tricky area. However I did hear two memorable bits from your colleagues (or perhaps you). One Captain gave a detailed pre-departure briefing on why we might arrive late, ending with "But I did save money on my car insurance today!" I am not sure if everyone got the joke, but thanks. The other time I was at the end of a line at BWI when two pilots walked up briskly and asked "Where are you going?" When I said Islip, they said "So are we" and boarded the plane. Another day brightened, thanks to SWA employees!
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Personally, I love it when our Pilots chat on the PA...especially when it's small tidbits of interesting information (i.e.: "On the left hand side of the aircraft, you can see the Grand Canyon..." or "The score of the Cowboys game at halftime is..." One of my favorites was when I had just boarded a flight bound for Austin, and our Captain got on the PA and said, "Well, folks, it's an hour and a half flight to Kansas City." Just when I started to second-guess myself and worry that I had accidentally boarded the wrong flight, he came back on and said, "but we're not worried about that b/c we're going to Austin!" It was pretty funny, and those of us who were paying attention got a pretty big chuckle. Keep up the great work! 😃
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Thank you, Capt. Ray. This was the best response I have ever received on any corporate travel communications entity. Kudos to Southwest, as well! I would have bet at least the cost of a round trip to a destination of choice that my post would never see the light of day, let alone that I would receive a response from you. Without a question of any doubt, I will choose Southwest if y'all offer service to whatever destination(s) my travels necessitate. Cheers!
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Looking for Phoenix pilot from Prescott, AZ Capt. Boyd Gallaher Army pilot/Huey Coptors. This is his sis Kathleen./ Tell him to call home. Thank you.
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Wow, if only all pilots were as frank as you. Information is power. It's also the way to keep passengers feeling like passengers and less like hostages.
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Thank you Capt. Ray! Your blog was so instructive and educational. I've been "held hostage" in some l-o-n-g flight delays and have been left with no information, lots of frustration, a feeling of powerlessness and perhaps even a little paranoia after 31/2 hours of waiting on the tarmac in 90 degree heat at O'Hare, or sitting on a side parking place at BWI for over 11/2 hours, or waiting for over 4 hours at MHT, then having my flight cancelled at some point after midnight! The hardest part was really having no credible explanation, other than "weather" or "full skies." Now you've given me a peek at just how complex and inexact the "flight delay" problem truly is. Just reading the information in your blog will make me a patient passenger from now on, because now I'll have some idea of what complicated decisions are being made on my behalf as the passenger. Your detailed, understandable , credible explanation makes so much sense. Thanks for respecting the basic intelligence of the passenger, then taking the time to explain - and for caring. I already love flying Southwest, but you give a very human touch to a large organization. Thanks again Barri Jo
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Thanks folks! New York just passed their version of the "Travelers Bill Of Rights." Captain Ray's prediction: To avoid penalties, airlines will leave passengers in the airport rather than on the planes. Empty planes will be forced to push back to allow other planes to deplane. Eventually, the airport will run out of food and clean bathrooms. Travelers will be turned away from the airport because the buildings will have exceeded their "maximum allowable persons" ratings the city posts so publicly. Eventually, the airports will gridlock. Groundstops will ensue for all planes headed into NYC. And THAT will be the end of the Passenger Bill Of Rights. The only people flying that day will be from upstate or Islip! Ray
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Let me start by saying that, yes, the p.a.'s that pilots give during the flight , are very important and sometimes amusing. For those of you that are unfamiliar with some of the job positions on the ground other than ramp agents or customer service agents, let me tell you my position. I am an operations agent in SMF. Besides taking your boarding pass from you at the gate and giving the capt his loading schedule (numbers paperwork), we also have a job duty called the coordinator. This person often sits downstairs, under the terminal, in an office all day answering phones, but most importantly talking to pilots once they're on the ground via a radio system to confirm their gate assignment or exchange any other pertinent information. As you may or may not know, the pilots' radios have many frequencies depending on who they need to communicate with. In other words, they have a different frequency when talking to the tower, ATC (air traffic control) and the many different stations they may be flying to. Well, here's the part that we get a kick out of. Many, many times, while sitting at the coordinators desk, we will hear the most beautiful, well delivered p.a.'s from a pilot to his on board passengers telling them about the scenary, the arrival time to their destination, the weather, you name it, he's going on and on all the while delivering not to their passengers, but to those of us on the ground. Of course, we can't wait for them to be finished because as soon as they are, we will key the mike and give them a nice round of applause with cheers, whistles and much laughter. They know immediately what they have done and there is either awkward silence or jeering from other pilots who have just listened in on their speech. Ray, you know I have to know......you've done this before haven't you???!!! As always, much luv to you Capt. "N"....
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Hey, Ed...folks at SWA really do answer...and especially Capt. Ray...you need to order his book! (This is Your Captain Speaking...Flight Training for Passengers by Ray Stark...make sure you get the right book if you go on Amazon...there are several books out with similar titles.)The book explains mucho about what happens and why...I bet he'd autograph your copy, too! And thanks to all at Love Field last Thursday when things got wild with hurricane weather. One of my business associates was trying to get from MAF to MDW via HOU but ended up in Dallas...the constant updates allowed her to change an Air Tran flight she had to take upon arrival in Chicago to get to Minneapolis...and she said the info exchange while sitting on the ground before they deplaned made all the difference! And thanks to all the SWAbiz folks...especially Scott...for helping set up my new business account...while I was jumping on and off flights and a trip to the vet! Carla in Alpine
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Terri is right...it's a tough crowd sometimes! Every pilots nightmare is doing the PA on ATC frequency. You should hear the cracks after that. Priceless as ten airplanes and a controller get their jabs in. Terri brings up a good point. When things get wacky with ATC or Mother Nature, the folks inside the terminal do their best to try and keep you informed. We pilots have to share info we get with the Operations personnel because we are talking to ATC, Company Dispatch, and other agencies, often on a more frequent basis that they have time to. When Terri is coordinating, she would get the first call to the station from ATC that a ground stop had been lifted or extended and quite often, her call to us would be almost simultaneous to a radio call from ATC telling the same news. Operations Coordinators are literally "the voice on the other end of the phone" when you call the station and they are the conduit of important information that comes into each station. Aside from keeping the usual flow of planes coming and going to the right gates, making sure wheel chairs get delivered to gates who need them, solving the various and sundry needs of planes on the ground, the Operations Coordinators on the radio at each station keep us abreast of information and other options and needs that arise. Terri is very good at "juggling" and her awesome sense of humor makes everyone's job easier. Ray ("Phew, I thought for a second I did that on ATC freq!!!")
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Hi Ray, I remember my first solo navigation (cross country, in a single engine piston aircraft, for my private pilots licence!). It was the first really good day of the year with a clear weather forecast, so quite a few solo navigators had been launched! The rule was the nav had to be at least 100 Nm long, with two intermediate stops at different airfields (other than your departure/arrival!). One of the solo students was making time go by faster in the solitude of his cockpit by singing songs to himself (awfully out of key - alas). Little did he realise he had the transmit switch pressed, and we all had to endure 20 minutes of pretty awful singing. When he eventually stopped broadcasting, there was a pretty awful silence, and nobody had the heart to tell him what he had just done! I have been paranoid about where my fingers happen to be on the stick since then :o) Raphael
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Our two flights from PHL to JAX and return were exemplary. We were boarded efficiently and on our return when things were backed up in Philly, we were well treated in Jacksonville, given plenty of information, snacks and sodas and allowed to wait in the very comfortable airport rather than on the tarmac like you hear of so much these days. Thank you very much for two very pleasant experiences.
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Raphael, A former Flight Attendant (and later SWA pilot) here was building time as a flight instructor. One of her FA friends wanted to solo a plane. She wasn't interested in getting her license, just solo. They flew a warm-up around the pattern and then Elaine got out, listening on her hand-held radio. As her friend started her takeoff roll, she inadvertantly squeezed the mic button and over El Paso Tower frequency you could hear, "OK now, Elaine would say, keep your nose up...OK.. Elaine would say get the plaps up now...OK, Elaine would say it was time to turn base now...." The lady talked her entire way around the pattern reciting what Elaine would say if she was in the plane. Upon landing, she released the mic switch. TOWER gave her loud applause. Is it any wonder that aviation is filled with so many memorable moments? Ray
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I flew from Las Vegas to San Antonio on SWA Flight 203 yesterday 8/29/07. We left the gate some 15 minutes late and taxied out for over 10 minutes - whoops, I thought, something ain't right. We stopped at the opposite end of the runway from where other flights were taking off. The Captain announced the following: "Because we have a full passenger and fuel load, we are going to have to take off from this end of the runway. As you can see, other flights are departing from the other end of the runway, but as soon as there is a "hole in the departures" we will be allowed to take off. We have been advised that we should be able to depart in about 15 minutes". Short version - ater another 30 minute delay, we took off an hour late - I have been flying for over 40 years and my questions are - Who in their right mind would believe that 1. The runway is longer from the opposite end? 2. If weight was the concern, why would one choose to take off with the wind instead of against the wind? 3. Why didn't the Captain just "fess-up" and admit that we missed our takeoff slot and was placed at the end of the runway to wait until our departure would not interfere with other scheduled departures and arrivals? Give me a break Southwest - not all of your passengers are that naive'. ww
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Dear WA, It's not about runway length... it's about runway SLOPE. If you look at the runway, it goes uphill to the west. That slope has a great impact on how your plane can accelerate in a high density altitude full of fuel and people. Going downhill, even with a slight tailwind is far easier, from an acceleration standpoint, than the usual uphill direction. This is a routine procedure for this time of year when hauling a full load a long way. In fact, it is not unusual to to see two or three planes sitting there waiting for ATC to make a "slot" to blast those departures opposite direction. With the exception of winds above 10 knots from the east, Las Vegas usually lands to the east (RWY 25). If it were not for the uphill slope, a 25 departure would work fine but there is the issue of those nasty mountains off the west end of 25. Bust a motor at liftoff heading west on a 100 degree day with a full load of folks onboard and you are barely going to outclimb the rising terrain to the west. Going east, the terrain goes downhill. As for you suggestion that you pilots were "placed" there to await a slot time, that is also incorrect. Slot times are something the TOWER will attempt to comply with if at all possible but, when it comes to opposite direction departures, they cannot instantaneously shut off arrival traffic to their airport. LAS tower only own the airspace within 5 miles of the tower and up to 3000 feet. APPROACH control has planes lined up as far as 50 miles out heading for LAS and only when Apporach has time to create a hole can TOWER release your jet into oncoming traffic. Your 40-year travel history must not include many summer Vegas trips. Sounds like you need a few more! Now you are not so naive either! Thankss for flying my airline. Captain Ray
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PS Sorry for all the typos! My browser wouldn't re-size and I was stuck in "micro-print mode." Once I got out and came back it worked correctly. I could barely read what I had written on my 19" monitor. Ray
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Just a quick question for Terri...is your father a fireman? How about your sister Sal? Jim