shit happens, but how to deal with it when it does?
Of course, everyone who frequently has to fly to an island destination like Madeira knows that there is such a thing as Madeira Flight Cancellations. Not pleasant, but this is a mountainous island and, coming from the wrong direction, it takes only about 18 knots, that is a low Force 5, to prevent planes from landing in Madeira. Though old stories about Madeira having one of the most dangerous runways in the world keep circulating in the internet, this really belongs to a distant past. The last accident in this airport, the only fatal accident in TAP’s history, occurred in 1977, when the runway was only about 1600 meters long. Following this accident, the runway was extended in two fases and is now a safe 2781 meters. Though extending the runway has made Madeira Airport quite safe, this has not been able to prevent Madeira flight cancellations. The high mountains of Madeira will always be causing wind shear in certain conditions, and for our own safety this will continue to cause disruptions in the Madeira air traffic.
What tactics are used by the airlines in case of an airport disruption?
At the first sign of adverse weather, the aircraft in approach are told to wait in a waiting area, usually between Porto Santo and Madeira. They will keep circling until there is a window in the weather allowing them to land. Obviously, it is the strict safety regulations that determine if an aircaft can be cleared to land. Finally, it is the decision of the flight crews wether or not they will actually land. It will be clear that it will never be a pilot’s choice to cause a flight cancellation by not landing if the plane is cleared to land an landing is at all possible.
different airlines, different tactics
However, we see great differences in how the airline companies deal with adverse weather conditions in Madeira. As we see more air traffic disruptions lately, doubtlessly caused by climate change, we see that different companies have different tactics when these occur. Some try to land at the nearby airport of sister island Porto Santo. But this has two problems. First, the small airport capacity. When there are 6 planes parked, there is no more space. Second the transport of the passengers to Madeira depends on the fickle ways of the ferry. the ferry is in the hands of Madeira’s sea transport monopolist Grupo Sousa, and it does as it pleases. There is the problem of getting the passengers leaving on the same plane as well, there is no way to get them to Porto Santo unless the airline company charters the ferry to do an extra return trip. Acually, easyJet hos done this a couple of times. But it is not a really sustainable choice, because of the small capacity and the lack of a fast and frequent ferry service. So, many companies decide to continue to one of the Canary Islands, which have a large capacity in hotel rooms to put the passengers up for the night they will have to spend there. The TAP and easyJet flights from the Portuguese mainland invariably return to the airport they came from.
persistence, or the lack of it.
Having said all this, we can see a big difference in the persistence of airlines to keep trying to land. Of course, the quantity of fuel determines for how long a plane can circle before it has to divert. But as we can see when we watch the flight paths of a flight waiting to land (an app or website like FlightRadar24 is invaluable for us who have to pick up friends or family from the airport regularly) We can see what planes are actually doing in real time, where they are inclining speed and altitude. This brings me to yesterday’s flight cancellations. Where the weather forecast predicted strong winds and heavy rain, we held our breath as Julien, a member of our ‘extended family’ needed to come to Madeira on an extremely short visit, arriving with one of the morning flights and returning on an afternoon TAP flight to Lisbon. We had already warned him of the conditions, but he landed on time, like a number of other flights. As it was important for him to return to Lisbon on the same day, we kept our fingers crossed. We watched the planes attempting to land, many circled for quite a while waiting for a weather window. Not TAP. It had to fly one circle to allow another flight to leave, then came in for landing, aborting to do a go around, but instead of being patient and trying again it returned to Lisbon immediately. As I had kept a close eye on this flight, I made a screenshot to inform Julien who was at the airport, waiting, and – as usual – was being kept uninformed of TAP’s decision to direct the plane back to Lisbon, thus cancelling his flight. .
As the above images show, TAP did very little effort to land Other flights, like the SATA flight from Ponta Delgada in the Azores, was more patient and finally did manage to land. The overview of yesterday’s incoming flights, taken from the ana.pt airport website shows, that shortly before and after TAP flight TP1689 returned to Lisbon, other flights did manage to land just fine. We think that maybe TAP needed the plane back in Lisbon for another flight, putting their interests above that of the passengers. But there is no way to check this easily.
How do airlines look after their passengers in case of air traffic disruptions?
The way the different companies look after their stranded passengers at the small Madeira airport varies a lot. We remember friends getting stranded at the airport in a similar situation. First they were our elderly Dutch friends returning home after a stay with us. The Tap flight was cancelled. They have been kept standing in a line for 11 hours, before finally getting on a flight to Lisbon at 21.00 hours. No seating, no food, no drinks and no information. Then they had to spend the night in a Lisbon hotel. Fortunately they were compensated with dinner vouchers. Want to know where? Burger King. Then, there were our Scottish friends returning to Edinburg on the same day as our Dutch friends with an EasyJet flight. Within the hour after the flight diverted, they were lazing next to the pool of a luxury hotel in Funchal, enjoying a glass of bubbles courtesy of easyJet. We see that the national Portuguese carrier really could not care less about their passengers. Another friend of ours left after a stay with us when her Transavia flight to Madeira was cancelled. She was put into a luxury hotel as well after not too long a wait. So the differences are very big. Julien, who tried to get back to Lisbon yesterday was kept waiting for over an hour before getting any information, when we knew from watching FlightRadar24 that the plane was already halfway back to Lisbon. We feel this is a complete disrespect to paying passengers. If I can see that the plane is not coming in, anyone can, and they should inform the passengers accordingly. As I was steaming by then, I started to use Twitter to demand information. They do not like that at all, as the whole world can read it. I received a very standard and evading answer, and after insisting they went silent. What I did receive in my chat program on Facebook was – quite irritating – a TAP advert telling me to give a TAP travel voucher to my loved ones. I think not, and I told them ‘to f*ck off’, as you can see. We are dealing with Madeira flight cancellations. Not with helping TAP’s sales.
After over an hour, Julien told me that he received a message from TAP telling him he was booked on tomorrow morning’s 08.45 flight. Fortunately, he had another reservation on an evening flight last night, which he could not change and therefore bought an extra ticket for an earlier one. In the meantime, I checked if there were other flights yesterday, and if there were seats available. The TAP website said there were no seats available. Still, I told him to try and get on the waiting list of the 18.05 flight, provided it would land. Just then, he had thought of that as well and lo and behold: he had a seat on that flight which subsequently landed. And now to the biggest fail of TAP: That flight, TP1686, left for Lisbon, he was on board, but half the seats were unoccupied. We know of other friends who were booked on the cancelled flight as well, that they were forced to wait until this morning before they could leave. It gets worse. TAP Flight 1688, leaving for Lisbon at 21.50 last evening, left partially empty as well, as confirmed by a good friend who works at the Airport of Madeira. He knows exactly what happens in case of Madeira flight cancellations,
so what to do in case of Flight Cancellations?
Do never doubt that coming to this island, in spite of more or les regular Madeira flight cancellations, is worthwile. It is a lovely island, very mountainous which makes for a spectacular scenery. But these mountains do cause flight disruptions every now and then. If this happens to you – and you can see the signs in the weather if this becomes likely – take your precautions. Take some packed sandwiches with you, as there may be a long wait before you are being taken care of. Also, have a charged phone or tablet, so that you have access to the internet The airport offers free WiFi. Check for other flights of the same company and try to get your booking altered if your flight is cancelled.
So why did they not offer this possibility to the TAP passengers who found their flight cancelled?
It is obvious that Ground Force, the company who has to deal with passengers and luggage on the ground, does what the airline tells them to do. Understandably, they are flooded in case of any Madeira flight cancellations and they can only do what the airline tells them to do. As TAP did not tell Groundforce to start booking passengers for the empty seats on the two remaining Lisbon flights, they did not offer that possibility. Shame on TAP. Not an unsafe company at all, but very, very unorganised. They probably suffer from a very, very bad case of pre-revolution hierarchy-ism that encourages bosses to bully staff, and causes staff to not take any initiatives.
And all the time the passengers affected due to their flight being cancelled were waiting for information that took a very long time to come, this was their irritating view. I would have raged. Especially while this is a situation that occurs rather regularly. They act as if it is a very new situation. They have no clue as how to deal with. Of course it is a big TAP fail, but also a big fail of the airport, which is now proudly called Aeroporto Internacional da Madeira Christiano Ronaldo.
We have been renting out our house in summer, and offering B&B in winter since 2009, so we have always kept our eyes wide open concerning flights to Madeira and disruptions. Over the last 10 years we have seen that Madeira flight cancellations have slightly increased over time. A more significant change is the way these air traffic disruptions have been spread over the seasons. These airport problems really used to be a thing for winter, but over the last couple of years we see this happening in summer as well, due to more extreme weather. There is nothing you can do to prevent your flight from being cancelled due to adverse weather conditions. The one thing you can do to at least lower the chance of your flight being cancelled for other reasons than bad weather is to always book your flight with a reliable company. People who saw their flights cancelled due to the bankruptcy of Thomas Cook, Monarch or Air Berlin have often not been paying attention to the news. If you have the slightest suspicion, check the internet about negative news before deciding where to book your flights. Also, check the track records of the companies you can choose from for how they look after their passengers in case there is a problem. TAP definitely has a bad track record, easyJet and Transavia have a decent one, and it is fortunate we have no Ryanair here because they have the worse track record of all, I think. Check before you book.