Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

The LAX Airport Rescue and Fire Fighting trucks salute the return of a fallen soldier

In the United States, the last Monday in the month of May is Memorial Day. Originally known as Decoration Day in the years after the Civil War, it is a day for remembering those who have died while serving in the US armed forces. Flags are flown at half-staff until noon, whereupon they are raised to full height.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Remote Gates

I have a nifty little thingy that lets me see how many visitors stop by this blog each day, which is sort of neat. Of course, there are all sorts of other things it can show me, like which entries are the most popular (Most Popular and Runner-Up). I can also see what sites are referring visitors to the blog. Not surprisingly, search engines Bing and Google head that list. The most popular search is for this picture:

Anyway, a few weeks ago, I noticed that there was a sudden spike in visitors to one particular entry (this one); a bit more inquiry lead me to the source: This forum, on I thought I had something to contribute to that discussion, but discovered that expected me to pay for the privilege of answering their readers' questions. Being the cheapskate that I am (A Scout is Thrifty - the 9th point of the Scout Law), I gave it a pass. But it occurred to me that somebody there had been here, and had subsequently sent over some of their friends; therefore I could address the topic here, with a reasonable assurance that someone would eventually get word back. So here we go!

LAX has eight (8) numbered terminals, plus the Tom Bradley International Terminal. At the present time, these give us a total of 108 gates that allow passengers to directly board some sort of aircraft. The American Eagle remote terminal adds another eight gates, but these require a bus transport from Terminal Four - Technically, they're Gates 44 A-H; as I think I've mentioned before, Gate 44 in Terminal Four is essentially a bus stop.

The west remote gates allow for loading and unloading, parking, and fueling of additional aircraft.* We refer to them as gates, but many are nothing more than hard stands. Some are plumbed for refueling, but not all. There are a total of seven (7) small buildings, which serve simply as transfer points from buses to the jetways; they have no facilities and aren't considered terminals. Nine (9) of the gates have jetways; but the ones along Taxiway AA do not. Four of the gates can accommodate the A380.

All of the remote gates are reached via buses, which load at designated gates in the TBIT and other terminals, where passengers check in and go through security. The buses are flight-specific, meaning that all the passengers on a given bus are headed to the same airplane. Arriving passengers are also bussed to the terminal to collect their luggage and clear customs.

First off, we'll take another look at our old friend, the airport diagram:

The airport diagram has North at the top; the Remote Gates are at the far west end of the airport, seen on the far left of the diagram, just south of the threshhold of the Runway 6 complex. Here's a close-up view:

This is how the remotes appear from the tower:

They say that a picture says a thousand words, but in this case that's overkill - six words will do it: We can't see squat out there!

On the other hand, if we had a taller control tower, we could have a better view. Our current tower is about 250 feet (77 meters) tall; this is what we could see if it were 2000 feet (615 meters) tall:

Unfortunately, building us a tower that tall might be considered impractical. But fear not - Technology to the rescue! The airport has provided the controllers with a camera and monitors with which we can see the remote gates, as well as the associated taxiways:

Here's another diagram of the remotes. This is one we use as a quick reference and for training. Like the previous diagram, this one has north at the top. It also shows the gate numbers and their orientation:

Edit: For a revised version of this chart, see this post: Remote Gates, revisited

As you might imagine, the devil is in the details. For those of you who play along at home, here's the backside of diagram, which lists most of the restrictions:

This is how the west remotes are depicted on our ground radar:

International flights regularly park at the remote gates; domestics rarely do. Most of the flights that load and depart from the remote gates occur around noon and midnight, and tend to be trans-Pacific flights. We used to have Central/South American flights depart out of the remotes late at night as well, but that pretty much stopped with the demise of Mexicana. However, most of the aircraft out there have been towed there for storage, usually to wait out a layover. This is the normal procedure if an airplane isn't scheduled to leave right away once the inbound passengers have disembarked. Gates at LAX are at such a premium that an aircraft isn't typically allowed to sit idle at one, especially at the International Terminal. One example is Air China, whose daily flight from Beijing usually arrives between five and six in the afternoon; the return flight doesn't leave until around one the next morning. That's way too long for the airplane to sit blocking a gate at the terminal, so once it's unloaded it gets towed out to the remotes for the interim. These tows can be a burden on the ground controllers, as they tend to be slow (Air China in particular), and may have to move against the flow of traffic. In some cases, it can take thirty minutes to move an airplane from the terminal to the remote or vice-versa. As an aside, I can recall working one of these tows that was really slow: By the time the aircraft made it out to the remote gates, it was time for it to turn around and come back!

While it's not the primary subject of this photo, the V-Australia B773 on the far right is being towed out to one of the remote gates to spend the day's layover; it'll be brought back around sunset for a 10pm departure.

The European flights all seem to come in and go right back out again. It's mainly Pacific rim carriers that have the long layovers, and thus are seen at the remotes. An unusual exception was the Icelandic volcano last year (and possibly about to be repeated this year): A number of European carriers had aircraft waiting it out on the ground at LAX. Besides the afore-mentioned Air China, we often have All Nippon, Asiana, China Airlines (Dynasty), Eva, Fiji (Air Pacific), Korean, Tahiti, and V-Australia parked at the west gates. Copa and Taca, both Central American carriers, also park layover aircraft at the west end. Some carriers have made other parking arrangements for their aircraft; Qantas and Air New Zealand both have planes on the ground all day at LAX, but rarely are they seen on the remotes.

This All Nippon B772 is also on its way to the remotes for about a 8-hour layover; it'll depart after midnight.

Some of the domestic carriers also park layover aircraft at the remotes:

The primary domestic users of the remotes for overnight parking are currently mostly tenants of Terminal Three: Alaska, AirTran, Horizon, Jet Blue, and Virgin America. At night, we'll also see Air Canada aircraft moved to the remotes to allow for the wave of late night/early morning Central American flights that operate from Terminal Two; around three in the morning they get towed back to be ready for their sunrise departures.

A Horizon Dash-8 under tow, on its way to spend the night at the west end

Another use we have for the remote gates is parking airplanes that can't depart for one reason or another. The two usual reasons: A foreign carrier pushes off their TBIT gate, and then subsequently discovers some sort of problem, be it mechanical, passenger, or paperwork. The gate they just left, meanwhile, has already been scheduled for another inbound flight - often another carrier's long-haul from somewhere way far away. In many instances, that inbound aircraft is already on the ground at LAX, waiting for the gate to become available. As such, the airplane that is supposed to be departing can't go back onto the gate that they just vacated because it isn't their gate anymore - it belongs to the waiting arrival. So the airport assigns the thwarted departure one of the remote gates, and the airplane gets repositioned out there.

The other reason that an airplane may not be able to depart and ends up at the remotes is because its destination airport is experiencing delays. The airplane may have an expected departure time of an hour or more in the future, but the company needs the gate for other flights. So flight gets loaded and pushes off the gate, whereupon we have to find somewhere on the airport to stash it until it can depart at its appointed time. If it's going to be a wait of more than about fifteen minutes, then the pilots would like to get somewhere they can shut the engines down to conserve fuel. The challenge for the ground controller is to find a place where he can tolerate a stationary aircraft for some extended period of time. Put another way, the ground controller has to make a decision as to what part of his movement area he's willing to sacrifice to accommodate the request.** If it's going to be a long wait, the taxiways around the west remotes are the favorite spot (E-17 in particular), because a parked airplane is least in the way on one of those taxiways (the ground controller can't put an airplane onto a gate just because it happens to be unoccupied at the time - the gates are assigned by LAWA, and nearly all require a ground crew to marshal the aircraft safely into position - thus the ground controller is forced to "store" such aircraft on his taxiways).

The most likely culprit destination airport is San Francisco: Partly due to their weather, and partly due to the close proximity of LA and San Francisco. There's not a lot of airspace between the two cities to hold airplanes, so an airplane departing off either one for the other needs to have a slot in the line available for it. We have similar scenarios with Las Vegas and Phoenix, but since their weather is usually better than ours, the delays tend to be minimal.

Gratuitous aerial views:

* - Cheesy movie reference: The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only; there is no stopping in the red zone.

** - Ground Control 101: One of a ground controller's necessary skills is dealing with aircraft that don't have anywhere to go, be it a gate or a destination. While they might like to go park somewhere to wait it out, there are times that the traffic situation just can't accommodate a roadblock. Most times, either ground controller at LAX can absorb at most a couple of airplanes that have to be worked around. There just aren't very many places that we can stick an airplane and leave it there without it blocking something or somebody else. Sometimes the best way is to keep the airplane moving with the flow of traffic so that it doesn't completely block some part of your taxiway. First one way, and then the other. It's like a holding pattern - on the ground!

Special Note: Happy Towel Day!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


This is turning into a week of disappointments: I had plans to go to AMVIV, but the scheduling at work has been particularly whack, so that isn't working out. I was intending to mow the yard this morning and then fly to Catalina for lunch (mmm, Buffalo Burgers!), but it's raining in LA today, so that's out too. Of course, I'll take any excuse to not mow the yard, but really - rain in LA in mid-May?! I didn't approve that!

Mind you, it's the perfect excuse for staying inside and eating cookies while writing a blog entry. Too bad there aren't any cookies in the house . . . I'll have to talk to somebody about that. Meanwhile, there have been some recent developments at LAX worth mentioning:

First is the arrival of two new regional carriers at LAX: Great Lakes Airlines started service here Sunday, flying out of Gate 65 in Terminal 6. They were formerly at Ontario, but reportedly have moved to LAX in expectation of better loads via their codeshare with United. Currently, they fly to Visalia, California, and then continue on to Merced - destinations not formerly served out of LAX. Great Lakes also flies to Prescott, Arizona, a destination that had Horizon service out of LAX for a while last year. Great Lakes (radio callsign: Lakes Air) flies 19-seat Beech 1900Ds. The only other Beech 1900 operator at LAX is Ameriflight, who uses 1900Cs for cargo. Much as I like Beech products, I must say that the D-model is not an aesthetically pleasing airplane, although Great Lakes' paint scheme is one of the more attractive 1900 liveries I've seen:

Our second new arrival is Mesaba Airlines (radio callsign: Mesaba), who flies 76-seat CRJ9s as Delta Connection out of Terminal 5. We already have SkyWest operating Delta Connection flights using all three CRJ models, and we've heard that Compass Airlines, another Delta Connection operator, will be showing up this summer. So far, I've seen Mesaba flights to/from San Francisco and Salt Lake City. Spotters tips: All the Mesaba aircraft that I've seen so far have registrations ending in "XJ"; many SkyWest aircraft, although not all, have registrations ending in "SK" or "SW", and some of the SkyWest planes may also have "SkyWest" under the cockpit windows.

While we've had Spirit Airlines at LAX for some time, it's been a while since they were seen here during daylight hours. Spirit has augmented their service to Detroit and Fort Lauderdale with several daily flights to Chicago O'Hare and Las Vegas. I must be feeling snarky today, because I have to say that I like Spirit's old livery (pictured above) much more than the new (seen below). Spirit has also added A320s to their fleet:

Here are a couple of additions to the "Seen at LAX" file:

This National Air Cargo DC-8 showed up one evening

Not being a major league soccer fan, I will confess that I'd never heard of the Portland Timbers until this Alaska B737 appeared. Since the LA Galaxy beat them 3-0 when they played here in April, you'd think they'd fly that plane somewhere else . . .

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I am a professional air traffic controller

Controller pet peeves: Part 1

People often ask if the job of being a controller is really as stressful as they've heard. In a word, yes. At least some of the time, anyway. We often joke among ourselves that this would be a great job if it weren't for all the pilots and airplanes. This is a topic that comes up regularly in the tower cab, mostly because we have to deal with it each and every time we plug in at a position. Pilots say or do things that run the gamut from mildly annoying to downright dangerous. These are things that we see and hear all the time, and they're counterproductive for all involved. Lest this devolve into a rant and rave, I'll limit myself to one of the biggest complaints for most of us at LAX:

Sloppy Radio Technique: As controllers, one of the primary things that we're graded on is our radio phraseology. Nearly all of what we say on a regular basis has standardized wording that we are required to use. There is an entire staff of people downstairs whose main function seems to be listening to and critiquing the recordings of our work. And everything is recorded: 24/7/365. But it's not enough that we say everything correctly. We're also held to account if the pilot doesn't respond correctly. Here at LAX, there have been several recent situations where controllers were cited for a loss of separation simply because the pilot didn't use his callsign when he acknowledged an instruction. Never mind that we direct an instruction to a particular aircraft using its callsign, nor that it's the same voice on the radio in subsequent transmissions. Example:

Controller: Air Carrier 123, hold short of Runway 25 Right.

AC123: Roger, we'll hold short of Runway 25 Right.

We have had controllers get in trouble for the above exchange even though the airplane did exactly as it was told, simply because the pilot didn't use his callsign while reading back the hold short instruction. Here is another scenario in which the controller was cited for an error despite the fact that the airplanes were legally separated:

Controller: Skypest 456, traffic twelve o-clock, two miles, the preceding Beagle Flight RJ climbing out of 2,200. Report that traffic in sight.

Skypest 456: We got him.

Controller: Skypest 456, maintain visual separation, contact SoCal departure.

Skypest 456: Switching, good day.

The controller got tagged with this because he didn't get the Skypest pilot to use his callsign when acknowledging the visual separation instruction.

Sometimes, it's like pulling teeth! Read on . . .

We are also required to get complete readbacks of runway hold short instructions. Here's another example (and I'm not making this up - I personally heard this happen):

Controller: Big Bus 321, at Foxtrot cross Runway 25 Left and hold short Runway 25 Right.

BB321: Cross the left and hold short of the right, Big Bus 321.

Controller: Big Bus 321, I need you to verify hold short Runway 25 Right.

BB321: Hold short of Runway 25 Right.

Controller: Big Bus 321, I need you to use your callsign.

BB321: Big Bus 321.

Controller (trying not to let his exasperation go out over the frequency): Big Bus 321, I need a complete readback of the runway hold short with your callsign.

BB321 (sounding very petulant): Hold short of Runway 25 Right at Foxtrot, Big Bus 321.

See how much time that wasted? Time is the most valuable thing a controller has. Time spent doing something like this is time not spent on doing something else - like getting another airplane (maybe yours) moving. We actually lost a departure hole while the controller messed around with this pilot. Because our tickets are on the line, you can expect this sort of thing to continue as long as pilots don't say exactly what we need to hear them say. The part that makes controllers unhappy is that the pilots are not required to do so - except by us, the controllers. Although we can (and do) get written up for not using the correct phraseology, there isn't a corresponding process for educating the pilots - who, by the time they get to LAX, ought to know better!

So, for all you pilots out there, please use your callsigns - even in subsequent transmissions with the same controller. Otherwise, you can expect us to hound you for a good readback.

Okay, despite my pledge not to turn this into a rant, it's becoming dangerously close. So I'll save the rest for another time.

Postscript: This was written and posted on Tuesday; when I returned to work on Thursday, I learned that LAX Tower has enacted a new procedure which adds the following to the ATIS: "Use your callsign with all readbacks." This procedure will be in effect for the next 60 days in an attempt to reduce the problem; now if we could just get the pilots to actually pay attention to what it says on the ATIS . . .

Monday, May 9, 2011

Awkward moment revealed

Let me start off by giving you a link to the Airport Diagram. We're looking southwest from the tower, over the south end of the International Terminal. The primary intersection in play here is Taxiways Bravo and Charlie at Taxiway Romeo. There's a funny thing about that, that I just noticed while putting this together: The airport diagram I'm referencing, as well as the current one, incorrectly show Taxiway Romeo stopping at Taxiway Charlie, when in fact it actually goes through to Taxiway Bravo.

When I showed you this photo last week, there were a couple of things that I didn't mention. The first is that Taxiway Charlie was closed between Taxiways Papa and Charlie-12 for construction. The second is that the Qantas B747 is under tow.

So it looks like the Qantas B747 is the key aircraft here - the one whose movement is most important to resolving the situation. As such, here's what seems to be happening: The Qantas B747 is being towed to the Qantas maintenance hangar, which is accessed from Taxiway Delta on the north side; the Virgin America A320 parks at Terminal Three, also on the north side; the American Eagle ERJ behind Virgin America is on its way to Runway 24 Left for departure. Meanwhile, the Continental-United B737, with a Skywest CRJ coming up behind, is on its way to Terminal Six, and is waiting for the Virgin America and Eagle Flight at Bravo-13.

Except that there's a third thing that I didn't tell you: That there was another aircraft involved that wasn't yet in the picture, but can been seen in the next one:

So here's what's actually happening: As previously stated, the Qantas B747, the Virgin America A320, and the American Eagle ERJ are all headed for the north side of the airport. In the current state of airport construction, the nearest route to the north side of the airport is Taxiway Romeo. All three of them are waiting for the American B767 coming the other way down Taxiway Romeo from the maintenance ramp, on its way to Terminal Four.

Meanwhile, the Continental-United B737 on Taxiway Bravo is on its way to Terminal Six, but is holding short of Taxiway Bravo-13 to wait for the Virgin America and American Eagle. The Skywest CRJ on Bravo is holding short of Romeo, ostensibly to allow the American B767 to turn in front of it.

The ground controller's dilemma is that there may not be enough room behind Continental for the American B767 to turn onto Bravo, and the B747 can't move forward until the B767 can clear the intersection. Continental can't pull forward to give American more room because of Virgin and Eagle, and they can't move until Qantas does.

So the solution was for the American to make a right turn onto Taxiway Charlie and then use Taxiway Uniform to make the U-turn onto Taxiway Bravo, behind the Skywest CRJ. The real challenge for the ground controller was to convince the mechanic driving the B767 that, although he wanted to taxi to the Terminal, he was first going to have to turn away from it and go the other way. It's kind of like trying to turn a horse away from the barn: You can do it (usually), but it isn't easy.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Yet another B747

Last month, I showed you a notable B747 at LAX. Now here's another one. Any guesses why this particular 747 is special?

Ghost plane!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Overtime Sightings

I had an overtime shift the other day that had me in the tower on a weekday that I'm not normally on the field. While this meant that I had a one-day weekend, the neat thing is that I got to see stuff that doesn't appear during my normal schedule:

We'll start with American's new nonstop service to Shanghai. American is the first domestic carrier to fly passengers from LAX to Pu Dong. We've had passenger service to Shanghai from China Eastern for quite some time now, along with cargo flights by a number of carriers. American uses B777-200s for the 13-hour flight, while China Eastern uses slightly slower (but bigger) A340-600s. Look at the flex in those wings!

Another B772 operator at LAX is Malaysia, who operates to/from Taipei - another 13-hour flight. Compare the wings at rest in this shot to those of American in the previous one.

American and Airborne Express are the primary operators of B767-200s at LAX these days, but here are two wearing other colors. In the foreground is a Continental B762 which has already been relabeled as part of the merger with United. This merger means that all three models of the B767 will be seen in one fleet, as United already has -300s, while Continental also has -400s. At one time, Delta had all three models of the B767 in their fleet, but parked their -200s a few years ago to simplify their fleet mix. Rolling on Runway 25 Right is a Tampa Cargo B762. Tampa is not a regular at LAX; this was the first time I've seen them here.

I think I've shown you the Continental retro B737-900 before, but here's another view. I wonder if this paint will survive the United merger?

Speaking of the United-Continental merger, here's a shot of all four of the relevant liveries: The Airbus in the alley wears the old United gray-top colors, while the Airbus at Gate 75A has the white-top scheme that replaced the gray; the B737 on the right side of the shot models the last Continental paint, and the B737 in the foreground displays the new hybrid United livery.

On most days, Philippines shows up in a B747-400. On some, they also bring in an A340-300:

While we're talking of A340-300s, three times a week Iberia brings in one as well, nonstop from Madrid, Spain:

Here's one more A343, seen offshore after departing Runway 24 Left enroute to Zurich:

You can't hear it, but the Low Altitude Alert is going off as this shot was taken. A343's are some of our least-favorite aircraft because they're slow poor-climbing runway hogs. It's common for them to cross the shoreline at six hundred feet with a climb rate more appropriate to a Cessna 172. Fortunately, there's nothing out there for about 2,000 miles (except for the sailboat races on weekends). Unfortunately, the next departure is going to have to wait a while for the A343 to struggle out of the way.

That bright light in the construction atop the TBIT was aimed right at the tower; it took about a half hour to get it moved!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Awkward moment

You guys seemed to enjoy the last time I showed you an interesting situation in progress. So here's another one: