Duty day. I reported to work and checked the weather forecast.
The runway was clear, and it seemed I had the weather was on my side.
The weather seemed acceptable, and at the time it seemed unlikely that we would be diverted.
I even thought about travelling light and leaving the overnight bag behind, but thought against it: “Aiya, let’s take it with me. I need a big winter jacket for walk around on the ground anyway. Since the jacket is inside the overnight bag. Best take the bag with me.”
And it proved to be the best decision I have ever made.
Two days before my flight, temperature in Sapporo had been sub-zero and snow fell unforgivingly. Even the snow has stopped for the time being, there was still a built-up at the airport.
If there is snow on the ground, the company permits an extra hour of fuel to allow for holding.
On the crew bus, I gave a briefing to the cabin crew and let them know that even though the weather was acceptable, the Sapporo duty could turn into our worst nightmare. The weather looked uncertain and condition could change any minute.
Long delay was on the cards, and so we should be extra attentive to our passengers. Any slip ups could lead to a commotion in the cabin. It was all very probable – I’ve seen it all many years ago. The media picked up on it, and it wasn’t pleasant or easy to handle at all.
The flight to Sapporo was pretty trouble-free. In the skies, we paid close attention to the weather in Sapporo. Luckily the local weather seemed OK. At the time, ATC holding looked to be our only worst case scenario.
When we reached the Sapporo airspace, we went into holding at two different locations. It wasn’t a big deal as we had enough holding fuel; and the subsequent landing was normal too. The runway cleared up nicely, and our plane could decelerate effortlessly to our assigned exit.
When we cleared the runway, we expected to take a right turn to park at the terminal.
But… ATC asked us to turn left!
At first I thought I misheard their instruction. But every aircraft in front of us did the same – left turn and away from the terminal. It was ominous…
The main reason Chitose ATC took us on a merry-go-round was because Chitose had only six international parking bays, and all of them were occupied.
There were many reasons why those aircraft couldn’t leave their bays: no ground support, cargo couldn’t be loaded or unloaded. Passengers couldn’t disembark and those in the terminal could not board. Those aircraft with passengers on board waited for passengers to end their fight over a blanket…
Our wait for a parking bay was excruciatingly long. As more and more aircraft came in, the queue on the ground became longer and longer. Even though the parking bay was within eyesight, we simply weren’t assigned one.
Day turned into night, and there wasn’t much I could do but to keep passengers updated with the latest situation.
Long waits on the ground are problematic due to crew duty hour. Crew duty hour depends on the number of sectors we fly, and that leads to different restrictions on our duty hour. By law, these hours cannot be exceeded or contravened.
The current duty assigned to me was a Sapporo turnaround and not an overnight. This limited my usable duty hour, making it even shorter.
One way to resolve the short duty hour is to fly to a closer destination and change crew there, so that the same aircraft can continue its way to Hong Kong. Alternatively, the captain can exercise his discretion to extend the duty by two to three hours.
It was agreed that the duty hour would be extended. The return leg would stop over in Tokyo, as a set of crew was already in place and waiting there, ready to take over from us.
Back on the ground on Sapporo, our wait for a parking bay has stretched into four hours. We were first in the queue, but we kept waiting.
From the cabin, I received a call saying a passenger suffering from a chronic illness needed to take his regular medication within an hour. The passenger took a dose before he boarded, and he must take his next dose soon.
Unfortunately his medication was checked into the cargo hold. As long as the plane was denied access to a parking bay, the passenger would be denied access to his medication.
I radioed ATC and said: “We couldn’t wait any longer. Our passenger had his medication checked in the hold. We could take a remote bay as long as we could access his medicine.”
At first, due to language barrier, ATC couldn’t understand us. After repeated explanations they finally got it. Half an hour later, there was an empty bay for us.
After we parked at the bay, passengers couldn’t disembark because there was no ground support. And indeed, where was ground support?
Chitose Airport is only a small airport. Inundated with a backlog of many aircraft and endless passengers, the local ground support wasn’t manned or equipped to deal with it all. We waited for another good few hours before ground support came and started the disembarkation process.
More than half a day has gone by and I have only completed half of my turnaround duty so far!
The boarding process for the return leg began. Since we had a long delay in the previous leg, the crew could no longer fly to Hong Kong within their legal limits even with extended duty hours.
The company decided we should fly to Tokyo instead, swap a set of crew there and continue on to Hong Kong.
I carried on working relentlessly. But I wasn’t the only one – everyone was off their feet: ground support, engineers… they were all so busy. Despite everyone putting in their best effort, there was still all sorts of different delays.
As for the passengers on board, they have already been stuck in Sapporo for three days without hotel and food. No money could buy them comfort – all the shops in the terminal were sold out of food.
And even if the passengers wanted to leave Sapporo, they couldn’t. JR trains were suspended due to the snow. Passengers simply couldn’t leave.
I did my calculations. There was only an hour and a bit of available duty hours left. We couldn’t afford further delay on the ground in Sapporo if we wanted to make it to Tokyo.
I knew I had to find ground support asap. Unfortunately manpower was in fantastic shortage in Chitose, and it took a very long time before preparation work for Tokyo was completed.
Just as we were ready to leave for Tokyo, a message from the company came through – the crew hour has expired for the standby crew in Tokyo, and a new destination was proposed:
Are you kidding?
It was like having ants in one’s pants… I was worried sick with the pressing time frame. There was barely enough duty hour to fly to Tokyo…
Taking into account a longer journey to Osaka, the proposed flight was nearly impossible. By now, there was only half an hour left in our available crew duty hour.
First Officer told me: “Holy shhh… we took fuel for Tokyo – we haven’t got enough for Osaka!”
Oh god why!?
We are dooooooooomed!
I immediately paged for the fuel truck to come back. The fueling took another 15 minutes from our crew duty hour. At present, only half the preparation work was done for Osaka. With only 20 minutes left, I radioed ATC to ask if we could take off in 15 minutes, if we pushed back now.
Every second of the crew hour counted.
And those seconds could be maximised if we did our preparation work during taxi.
But ATC’s answer was…
“You’re number five in the push back queue.”
That meant at least half an hour before push back! That made it impossible to even make Osaka within our legal limit. What on earth was I supposed to tell these passengers who have been waiting for days?
When I knew that we could no longer take off, the only thing I could think of was to mitigate against the aftermath…
I asked ground support whether passengers would be given hotels – No.
…No local hotel had that capacity anymore.
Asked if ground support could give passengers food – No.
…All the transport links were disrupted and trucks could not reach the airport.
Asked if ground support would give crew hotel – Maybe.
Asked if ground support would give crew food – No.
Asked if ground support could give crew transport – Working on it.
Passengers have been stuck in Chitose Airport for three days already. And where do I find the heart to tell them that they would be stuck here for another day?
What else could I do for them?
After a discussion with the ISM, we decided to do a meal service, even if it meant we gave up all our crew meals.
These passengers have gone without proper food for three days already. The least we could do was to give them a reasonable bite before they disembark.
That’s the least we could do.
“Deeply sorry that you all have to disembark this plane. We cannot take off within our legal crew duty hour limit. As such, our aircraft will be towed to a remote bay to free up the terminal parking bay for other aircraft.
Once we reach the remote bay, the plane will be shut down, and the cabin will become very, very cold. You are better off inside the airport terminal.”
I told the passengers over PA the full story why we couldn’t take off.
I welled up as I did the PA.
After a very long time, hotel and ground transport were finally arranged for the crew. A taxi ventured out on the icy roads from the city and journeyed into the airport to pick us up.
When I left the aircraft, a chill washed over me. Even if heating was on, I felt very cold. Very cold.
Only at this point did I realise I have gone without a bite for 18 hours straight. I took two left over biscuits from the passengers and shoved them in my mouth.
This should do it for now. At least until we reached the hotel.
It was a long journey to the town center, taking more than an hour. On the way, ice and snow covered every visible surface. The taxi understandably went very slowly. It slipped on the road a few times.
The uncle who drove us was like the tofu delivery man Takumi Fujiwara in the Japanese anime Initial D. The uncle gripped the shift stick, calmly wagged the car’s tail to corner, spinning the car with so much swagger as if the angle and direction was completely under control!
I said I needed to learn from him. I needed to keep his kind of cool in crises.
So we arrived at the hotel. Relax now, could we?
Not really. A team leader should do what he is entrusted to do.
I went out to get a little bit of food and drinks for the cabin crew; they haven’t had any proper food for a very long time now.
Thanks to the overnight bag, I got change after a quick shower. Fresh clothes! Joy, what a luxury!
By that time, it was already 4am. Sat in the bed, I calculated tomorrow’s flight time, and the company rang.
They asked if my team could cut short their rest time (a captain could at his discretion reduce rest time). I said I didn’t mind, if that helped the passengers. Furthermore, the cabin crew might want to return to Hong Kong as soon as possible.
You might not know that even though rest time could be cut, there was a limit as to how much it could be cut.
First: by law, the crew should have at least 10 hours rest in a hotel.
Second: available duty hour for the next flight would be reduced according to the lost rest time.
In the end, we decided to cut the rest time by one and a half hour.
In the meantime, it was sleep before battle again at sunset.
I only slept for a few hours. The next morning, the company messaged to tell the crew to prepare their own inflight meals as ground support might not be able to source enough food for all the passengers and crew.
I recalled a conversation with the local ground support the previous day, that there might not be any food at all for passengers on the next flight.
So I implored the company to get food for the passengers – even if it meant getting them from corner shops in the city center. Food must be prepared for the passengers. I couldn’t bear to see them starve as they have gone without proper food for a long while now.
D day. Snowflakes were dancing around lightly. And the weather seemed acceptable.
Seeing we couldn’t afford any further delays, I telephoned to remind the local engineers to clear the snow on the aircraft before us crew arrived.
In the afternoon, we boarded a vehicle, and were fully prepared to combat again. The cabin crew were very smart – they brought a whole barnful of supplies with them. There was so much food!
An army marches on their stomach. Quite right.
In the evening, we finally arrived at the airport. There were many passengers still waiting for us.
The plane was parked in a remote bay, and we couldn’t board as there was no shuttle bus. But today, something was different. It seemed there were more staffs in the terminal.
A few Hong Kong ground staff have come to support!
The merit of Japanese ground staff is that they’re super organised. And in crisis situation like this, our Hong Kong colleagues really showed their worth, unleashing their strongest point: The minute our Hong Kong ground staffs stepped out of the plane, they were already in combat mode. They marched into the terminal in high spirit. Their passion, their energy, their professionalism… I wanted to give each and every one of them a big smooch and a super tight squeeze!
After much negotiation, we found a bus to take us to the aircraft. The passengers were ecstatically happy when they saw us finally getting ready to board. They applauded in joy, exclaiming in excitement that they could finally go home!
Thanks to the engineers, the snow was already cleared by the time we reached the aircraft, saving us a bit more time.
Since we were parked in a remote bay, I asked the ISM to send a few cabin crew to escort the passengers onto the outdoor stairs, and protect them from the slippery icy surface.
Due to a shortage of shuttle bus, it took a very long time to board all the passengers. Every passenger got a bento in the end (which was better than nothing).
All of my passengers today boarded the same aircraft last night. So I did a special PA. A long, long one. So long that I couldn’t even remember what was said verbatim.
It was along the lines of:
“I believe most of you were on board this plane yesterday.
From various sources I know you’ve been stuck in the terminal for a very long time, without food, without hotel.
I completely understand how you feel.
Sapporo Chitose Airport is a very small airport.
There are only six parking bays.
In this unprecedented snowstorm, unseen in the past 50 years, many aircrafts and passengers have been inconvenienced. Chitose Airport has been working beyond its capacity, and it’s beyond what ground support could reasonably handle.
I know everyone has had a tough time. As your captain, I tried my best to do all I can within my ability and authority.
This morning I was still in conversation with the company to discuss our flight today. Our cabin crew didn’t mind cutting short their legally-required rest time to make this flight possible.
Yesterday, we even shared our crew meals with everyone.
Our flight today isn’t supposed to have any food on board, but we pressed hard and searched hard for food for everyone. The bento you have in front of you is the result of this morning’s negotiation.
Regrettably, yesterday’s delay was too long.
There weren’t enough men to handle ground support.
We used up all our available duty hour and we couldn’t take off yesterday.
I exhausted my authority as a captain to extend our duty hour. We tried for alternative destinations a few times, and we couldn’t take off in the end.
I understand you must have a lot of suggestions for my company, and please do send us your feedback.
We can only improve with your comments.
But I would also like to let you know that us frontline workers…
Ground staff, engineers, cabin crew, pilots and all our colleagues… worked very very hard to make sure we return to Hong Kong.
I’m very sorry even at present I can’t guarantee we can take off today, because there are too many variables outside of my control.
I appeal for your support to your cabin crew and other frontline staff today.
We are all on the same plane. We’re in it together. We’re all focused on the important mission of bringing everyone home.”
The FO seemed a little bit moved by the PA, and he said it was the “best PA he’s ever heard”.
I wasn’t sure if the PA struck a chord with our passengers; but every word said was from the bottom of my heart.
A cabin crew came into the cockpit and said she used her “prehistoric mystic powers” to translate what I said into Cantonese.
Sorry! The next time, I will make my PA in Chinese as well!
Since some passengers gave up on waiting for the flight today and took domestic flights instead, their left bags were still inside the belly of this plane. It took our ground colleagues a very long time to locate and offload these left bags from the cargo hold.
Our ground colleague also made frantic phone calls to confirm the passenger number and their associated checked bags. He was extremely meticulous. I really appreciated his work.
By that time, we didn’t have much available duty hour left.
After we pushed back and half way through taxiing to the runway, ATC changed our departure clearance!
We had to re-programme the flight computer again!
The FO was puzzled when he saw me fishing out the manual, then proceeded to checking very slowly and carefully against each item. The clock was ticking against us, and the FO wondered why I paced myself through every item on the checklist.
I said: “If you’ve never had an accident before. Today is the day. The more hurried we are, the more careful we need to be. Accidents strike when you are in a rush, especially when you don’t pay full attention.”
Luckily the FO was very experienced, very smart. He alleviated much of my workload and stress.
It was in the small hours when we were finally airborne. Most of the passengers were asleep, and when we approached Hong Kong, I couldn’t bring myself to waking our passenger up by making a descend announcement.
It was 3am when we finally landed.
I didn’t get any proper shut-eye throughout this Sapporo trip.
Nor did I eat a normal meal (guess the two meals at the hotel were OK).
My Christmas day off and promised family time went up in the air.
I even missed my wife’s baptism day.
So what did I get? Might be an experience.
Being able to take our passengers safely home was a big enough reward for all of us in the end.