I swore to myself back in 2002 that I would never fly Delta Airlines again – that is, until this past weekend. In 2002 I was an undergrad and a terrible white-knuckle flyer, and some horrendous weather delayed my flight from Boston to Atlanta. That meant I missed my connection to Southern California and was stranded for seven hours overnight in the Atlanta airport. I remember asking the attendants repeatedly to let me off the flight while we were still grounded (with the door open) just to avoid it. I was in tears by the time I got to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, especially after the Delta desk attendant gave me a $5 voucher for food from vendors who had gone home hours before, saying it was the only compensation they could offer me. After all, it was a weather delay, and per policy, most airlines don’t do much for their passengers in those cases. But I was hungry, I was tired, and as a 20-year-old female, I was scared to be sleepy in a partially-shutdown airport alone. Delta was a bad word in my lexicon for a long, long time.
So this past weekend against my better Delta PTSD judgment, I booked a last minute set of moderately priced flights with them, from San Diego to Baltimore-Washington International Airport…by way of Atlanta. Eeek, I thought, here’s to second chances. I joked with my fiance – how many times can lightning strike in the same place?
In this case, the proverbial answer was twice.
With a monster storm system trailing down the eastern seaboard, we spent seven hours overnight on Monday trying to sleep in one of Delta’s Atlanta terminals. Overnight in Atlanta! AGAIN – ACK! A weather delay in Baltimore meant we would either miss our connection in Atlanta or have to take a series of more complicated options Delta offered that would be costly, something we couldn’t afford. So we missed our second flight due to one of the more awful lightning storms I’ve ever witnessed with my own eyes. Lightning was striking over and over, sometimes even touching down around the Baltimore area.
I’m a pretty reasonable person. I don’t blame the crew of that plane or the airport for grounding the flight the way that they did. After all, it’s safety first, and Federal Aviation Administration regulations required it for them and other airlines. I also knew that Delta would be trying to relocate their crews and plane back to their main hub in Atlanta, so they’d likely push to get our flight out as soon as the weather permitted, passengers be damned. It just seemed like a safety stretch to be in the air at all when all other airlines had cancelled their flights.
So, like any rational person scared out of my mind in a metal lightning-rod-tube-with-wings sitting on a tarmac, the sky filled with flashing light, and no reassurances from the crew, I texted my father. He’s a veteran flight operations professional who handles things with both directness and humor. In this case, he was (and is) my Scientific Parent:
My father’s usually a man of few words, so that was pretty much all I needed to hear. He’s a pilot, he’s Federal Aviation Administration certified for a host of compliance and safety topics, and he’s not one to get alarmed. This is a man who can sleep through turbulence and wake up refreshed as though he’s lounging on a beach. But he knows me well enough, and a few minutes later, this dropped in:
Now this I didn’t know. My concept of bad weather+airplanes is something along the lines of the made-for-TV movie of Stephen King’s Langoliers. But the reality is much, much safer.
Static Discharge Points Along a Jet’s Wing – via Wikipedia, courtesy Adrian Pingstone
Lightning happens when high-current electricity is discharged (i.e. it sparks) in the atmosphere. That electricity is created by (to put it simply) liquid and ice and negative and positive electrical charges in the clouds colliding. That can happen between clouds, within clouds, in the air, or between the cloud and the ground. I’m not going to get into the complicated science about it, but what is helpful to know is that 90% of all lightning strikes happen between clouds and the ground, which is why it’s so vitally important for those airports to operate cautiously. Because a single bolt can contain 1 million volts of electricity. Airports are big, flat spaces with tiny humans and large metal planes, and millions of gallons of combustible jet fuel, which is just asking for trouble.
As our plane sat on the tarmac at Baltimore, ground crews were cleared for their own safety against possible lightning strikes on the ground, and planes were halted in position. And while I was glad that we were safe in the plane both on the ground and in the air, I didn’t quite understand why. So here’s how it works.
Planes’ fuselages are mostly aluminium, which is a great conductor of electricity. So great that it sounds crazypants to fly in bad weather at all. Not surprisingly, while 10% of lightning strikes on planes happen due to a wrong-place-wrong-time scenario, 90% actually happen because the plane inadvertently causes it. But they’re also built to protect against that very occurrence. With all the smooth lines and curves of an airplane’s design, and a layer of embedded metal mesh, when lightning strikes, electricity flows over the plane, not within it. Add in elements on the plane that help discharge additional electricity and ground all of the electrical equipment inside (elements such as shields, wire mesh, strips, etc.), and you’re actually quite safe. For all you freaked-out flyers like myself: this means you’re not going to get zapped, fried, and the plane isn’t going to suddenly stop working and fall out of the sky after a strike. Thank goodness!
From Boeing.com: Lightning travels along the airplane and exits to the ground.
Also, if lightning wasn’t a big deal for the plane why in the world weren’t we taking off if we were fueled up and ready to go? Because awful weather means awful turbulence. But that’s a whole other can of worms to open on another day.
I’m glad we’re finally home, and that our flight crew operated with a safety-first mentality, although the inconvenience factor without adequate allowances we experienced was atrocious. As a writer and policy person, I can’t really wrap my head around for-profit companies that have policies lacking contingencies for extended-hour delays, aimed at keeping customers both safe and supported. A kudos to Delta for making customer service more accessible these days (props to WB at @DeltaAssist on Twitter, and a thank you to the crew and staff for being impeccably kind and warm despite their own exhaustion and lack of resources), but really corporate guys, you can do better than the policies you’ve got. I’m not looking to have that third proverbial lightning strike anytime soon.