Why Delays After Emergency Landings?

Q: On a flight from San Diego to Dallas, a medical emergency required a diversion to Phoenix. We were immediately cleared for landing, but once on the ground we waited almost an hour. The pilot announced that refueling would be necessary, and there was paperwork to fill out. Why the delay, and why the need to refuel when Phoenix sits directly along the route between San Diego and Dallas? (The emergency involved an infant that had difficulty breathing. Later, there was no mention of the event in the Phoenix papers. Was this so routine as to be un-newsworthy?)

The hour-long wait doesn’t surprise me. You’d have needed a new flight plan; a new ATC clearance; a revised weight and balance manifest; and so forth. Additionally, it’s possible that all of the fuel parameters had changed. Having enough gas for San Diego-Dallas does not guarantee you still have enough, per the guidelines covered above, just because Phoenix rests partway between. Takeoff and climb to cruising altitude consume a considerable percentage of the total, and now you’re looking at two takeoffs.

This type of thing does not happen very frequently, no, but I fail to see why it would, necessarily, warrant mention in the paper. The news was not the detour itself, which was nothing more serious than a plane landing at city B instead of city A; rather the baby with breathing trouble. And babies with breathing trouble usually don’t make the news. Unless, maybe, you’re watching local Fox TV, in which case each of the leading five stories must, per network decree, in some way involve small children.


This Q&A 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.