Why the Plane You Fly Matters on Westbound Transcon Flights

Why a few Virgin America A320s have had to refuel on westbound transcon flightsThe Points Guy’s JT Genter recently wrote an informative story titled, “Strong Winds Are Forcing Many Virgin America Transcons to Divert for Fuel.”

In the story, which was posted on Sunday, he writes, “Strong winds are actually forcing some nonstop flights to make refueling stops. In particular, Virgin America’s transcontinental flights from New York’s JFK, Newark (EWR) and Boston (BOS) to San Francisco (SFO) and Los Angeles (LAX) have been plagued by these fuel stops. At least 27 westbound Virgin America transcontinental flights have had to make refueling stops over the last four days.”

I’ve heard of this occasionally happening on other airlines and routes, too. It’s rare, and it pretty much only happens in winter, but it can happen. And when a flight is forced to make a refueling stop like this due to exceptionally strong winds, there’s not much you can do. The airline usually doesn’t know that the refueling stop will be necessary until the last minute, or even until the plane is in the air. As to why it’s happening to Virgin America more than most, it’s because the airline flies A320s on its westbound transcons.

For more, I asked our resident pilot (see his Ask a Pilot series here) to weigh in. Here’s what he said: “Technical stops, or tech stops, while rare, do happen from time to time. In the instance of Virgin America and its flurry of fuel stops lately, the reason can be found in its employment of the Airbus A320 on transcontinental flights. While the airplane is terrific, it lacks the endurance, which is amount of time an airplane can stay aloft, to fly into strong winds during an extended period. This is because the airplane wasn’t designed to fly transcontinental. Rather, it was originally envisioned as a short-range jet. However, on nearly all days and in most conditions, the airplane will make it from coast to coast with no problem. While it seems to be happening more frequently lately to Virgin, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines also employ tech stops during strong winds on some of their flights from Europe to the U.S. using Boeing 757 aircraft.”

Airlines aren’t required to compensate passengers for the inconvenience, but one affected Virgin America passenger says they were sent a $100 travel credit. And from The Points Guy, “Virgin America responded Sunday night to confirm that the ‘planned refueling stops are due to strong headwinds for the trans-con flights coming from the East Coast.’ The airline apologizes to passengers for the delays and has ‘offered compensation to our guests who were delayed.'”

It’s probably not much to worry about, but if you don’t want to risk making a stop on a westbound transcon, I would book a carrier that flies a plane larger than an A320 or a Boeing 757. FlightAware is a good tool for determining the plane used on a given route (as are airline websites and most OTAs like Google Flights).

 

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Johnny Jet
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5 Comments on "Why the Plane You Fly Matters on Westbound Transcon Flights"

  1. I suppose a round the world itinerary would work best flying east for every leg.

  2. The flip side of strong head winds are strong tail winds.
    2 weeks ago on a red eye out of SFO to DFW I was following the flight progress on the monitor & had to double check was I was seeing.
    I don’t know if they broke some kind of record but we were cruising at 615 MPH!!!
    This was on FEB 6 on AA 1009 an A321 with a rated top speed of 541 mph. If my math is correct that would translate to a 74 mph tail wind

  3. Pam Heldenbrand | February 24, 2018 at 4:12 pm | Reply

    Yikes! We flew a Virgin A320 westbound from San Francisco to Honolulu a few weeks ago, a flight nearly as long as a transcontinental flight. We would certainly have had trouble finding a place to refuel had we suddenly faced heavy winds.

  4. Mike Phillips | March 2, 2018 at 8:32 pm | Reply

    Would a 737 suffer the same fate under similar conditions?

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