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Pilot: 'When Mother Nature gets grumpy, get comfortable'

By Daniel E. Fahl, Special to CNN
  • Flights have to "merge" with other traffic on busy airways
  • Since planes can't stop in midair, ground delays are sometimes necessary
  • A thunderstorm is similar to a disabled vehicle blocking a lane, airline pilot says

Editor's note: Daniel Fahl is a captain for a major U.S. airline. He has been a pilot for 10 years and has extensive experience in navigating around travel delays.

(CNN) -- If you're traveling by air to see friends and family this holiday season, the chances of a delay-free trip are about as likely as enjoying the process of clearing airport security -- very slim. Should that be a surprise to you, though? Not really. Just as those traveling by car can expect stop-and-go traffic on backed-up freeways, air travelers will feel the effects of crowded skies as well.

As airlines ramp up extra flights to meet demand this time of year, airborne highways -- termed airways -- will be congested. Similar to merging onto a freeway in your car, aircraft departing from various airports join airways that are shared by other flights headed in a similar direction.

Unlike cars, which can stop and go when merging on the freeway, aircraft are unable to stop in midair to allow for merging traffic. This is why you might find yourself waiting to "merge" on the ground with a delay. When demand for certain airspace exceeds availability, the Federal Aviation Administration implements what's called a ground delay program (GDP).

With a GDP in effect, pilots call air traffic control on the ground to receive an estimated departure time, or "wheels-up" time. Some of these delays are anticipated by the airlines and therefore are already built into your travel itinerary. But when Mother Nature gets grumpy, get comfortable!

If severe weather blocks your flight's original route, the pilot will coordinate with air traffic control to work out an alternative route that avoids the storm. An airway blocked by a thunderstorm is similar to a lane of automobile traffic blocked by a disabled vehicle; two lanes must now be merged into one.

This situation can cause extensive delays of well over an hour, especially when traveling into or out of busy airspace in the New York metro area. The effects of route-blocking weather in this area are magnified because three major airports -- JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark Liberty -- are within a 20-mile diameter. The enormous volume of arrivals and departures from these airports makes running an on-time schedule difficult even on the nicest of days.

Winter weather poses a different dilemma, as snow and ice can cause temporary runway closures as well as a long line of aircraft waiting to be sprayed with de-icing fluid. Throw strong winds and low visibility into the mix, and an airport that normally has multiple runways for use can be cut down to one.

If your flight is delayed for one of these reasons, chances are that your connecting flight will be delayed as well.

So when delays plague your holiday travels, know that pilots follow the motto "schedule with safety" and are working hard to get you home to your family so that we get home to ours, too.