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PIT Offers Safe Haven for Diverted Aircraft

It’s not every day that an Airbus A380 lands at Pittsburgh International Airport, so when one touched down last winter, the sight of the world’s largest passenger plane delighted aviation enthusiasts around the region.

With some of the longest runways in the region, PIT can accommodate aircraft of all sizes – even the four-engine Emirates A380 that was headed for New York’s JFK airport from Dubai. The double-deck, wide-body jet diverted to PIT because of a winter storm affecting air traffic in New York, landing for what the industry calls a “gas-n-go​” – essentially, refueling before taking off for another airport.

Diversions occur when an aircraft must alter its destination because of a variety of circumstances, including medical emergencies onboard, inclement weather and mechanical failures. And with an FAA-reported 43,000 daily flights across the United States, both airports and airlines alike must be prepared to accommodate diversions.

A diverted Emirates Airbus A380 sits on the tarmac at Pittsburgh International Airport in January 2018.

The Emirates flight was one of roughly 450 diversions at Pittsburgh International in 2018. Because of PIT’s location, size, runway lengths and equipment, the airport has become an ideal location for diverted aircraft to land, said Bill Calhoon, PIT’s operations duty manager.

“We are far enough away that we don’t have the same weather conditions as New York and the D.C. area, but we are close enough that when aircraft divert to Pittsburgh, it’s hopefully less of a burden,” said Calhoon.

In fact, Emirates recently designated PIT as one if its primary diversion airports in the U.S., and other airlines are making similar inquiries.

Airlines are required to adhere to the U.S. Department of Transportation tarmac delay rule, which prohibits domestic flights from allowing passengers to remain in an aircraft on the tarmac for more than three hours without deplaning. It is the responsibility of the airline, not the airport, to determine whether or not to allow passengers to get off the plane.

For employees of Southwest Airlines, crew members on the ground work together in the event of a diversion to get passengers to their destinations safely and as soon as possible, according to Brian Parish, a spokesman for Southwest Airlines.

“While we cannot always avoid a diversion for various reasons, the Southwest team always keeps our customers’ safety and comfort as top of mind when handling any type of irregular operation,” he said.

In 2018, many of the planes diverting to Pittsburgh International were scheduled to land at New York’s LaGuardia and Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., with the leading cause for diversions being inclement weather.

In addition to having personnel on standby, Pittsburgh International also stores blankets, cots and toiletries for passengers affected by diversions and extended delays.

“Our responsibility is to make sure the airlines have the resources they need,” Calhoon said. “At PIT we have crews available to fuel the aircraft quickly and hopefully get customers back to the original scheduled itinerary as quickly as possible.”

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