Weight Restrictions on Flights

Q: Before boarding, we were told our flight was weight restricted because of a malfunctioning system. Is it the crew’s decision to take off when something important is not working?

Airplanes can depart with various inoperative components — usually non-critical equipment carried in duplicate or triplicate — depending on guidelines laid out in a pair of fat manuals called the MEL (Minimum Equipment List) and CDL (Configuration Deviation List). Any component listed in these books is “deferrable,” as we call it, so long the outlined conditions are met. These conditions can be quite restrictive and complicated, depending what’s broken. Many things, of course, are not deferrable at all, and any malfunctioning item must be repaired in a set number of days or flight hours. Any deferral must be documented and coordinated between the crew and maintenance personnel.

Above and beyond the deferral process, no respectable airline will pressure a crew to operate any flight. The final call, if you will, is the captain’s, regardless of what the MEL or CDL allow.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.