What happens when the airplane scheduled to fly a particular route doesn’t have the legs to make it all the way to the destination? Some Canadians flying between Alberta and Cancun were rewarded with “bonus flying” as their Flair Air 737-400 made a technical stop en route to refuel. It is not a safety issue; the planes appear to have never pushed beyond regulatory limits for flight operations and fuel minimums. But the incidents – mostly recorded in 2016 but still occurring at lest once in 2017 – show how saving on costs can present a challenge when operating the trip.
Air Transat markets trips between Calgary and Cancun for winter and spring getaways but does not operate the flights. It outsources that function to Flair Airlines, a small Canadian operator with five 737-400 aircraft in its fleet. The problem comes about in that the 737-400 has a maximum range of 2,060 nautical miles; the distance between Calgary and Cancun is 2,292 nautical miles. It is not hard to see that this aircraft is undersized to serve the route. Of course, the max range number also assumes max loads, both cargo and passenger. Block seats or otherwise reduce weight on board and the range extends. If the trips are not sold out the flights might be able to operate as a non-stop and for the 2017 season it appears they mostly did. In 2016, however, diversions to refuel were far more common according to the CBC investigative report.
In 2016 the diversions went to a variety of airports in the US and Canada. In 2017 the one I see stopped in Regina, Canada in both directions. Flights arrive 2-3 hours delayed typically, which sucks but isn’t the end of the world. And there’s not really anything wrong with stopping, except when the airline lies to customers about the offering. Or lies to aviation regulators.
The regulatory angle is where things are really, really strange. According to the CBC reports Flair would file flight plans departing Cancun for service to Calgary or Kelowna, knowing full well that it would not be flying there. Its dispatch team would provide the “full” flight plan to allow for the paperwork to be filed in Mexico but also a second set of numbers based on the pre-planned diversion point. Less fuel, different routing, and instructions for the pilots to only request the diversion after clearing Mexican airspace are just a few of the crazy bits that make up this story.
United Airlines similarly struggled with some of its 757-200 routes across the Atlantic in the past. German authorities went so far as to caution the company about excessive fuel stops westbound and question the marketing of the flights as nonstop. And I’m sure that the flight plans were sometimes filed hoping to make it all the way back to Newark but eventually were altered to reflect the stop. More often than not, however, the planned fuel stops were part of the initial filing, not a post-departure change. The company even eventually stopped blaming it on weather before switching most affect routes to larger aircraft or dropping the service.
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