Q. Flight XX is shown as diverting to Gander. Can you tell us the reason? – by Twitter
Gander gets diversions. Not every day, but regularly. YQX is right on the sweet spot of the Great Circle Route between Europe and the Americas. Around a quarter million commercial flights will red circle Gander as an emergency alternate every year. Occasionally, an aircraft will divert from its flight plan. More often than not, it is for something routine. Could be a stop for fuel in a strong headwind, or to check an indicator light, or a sick passenger. Less commonly, it’s a security matter – an unruly passenger or other threat.
There are a lot of people who avidly follow aviation and aircraft movements. Everyone has a hobby and it’s a great one. (Don’t all hobbies seem a little peculiar to others?) We are #avgeeks
, too, so we get it. The same people who do this tend to produce stunning plane photos and are passionate about aviation, so we applaud the pursuit.
However, people often want to know why an aircraft – still in flight – is diverting to Gander. More than anything, it’s someone who is curious inquiring through social media or a journalist having to produce an instant story given the modern pressure of the 24-hour news cycle.
Here’s the thing – we probably aren’t going to tell you. There are a host of reasons why, but let me explain the most important one.
Think about a time you were driving home and you saw an emergency vehicle – a fire truck, ambulance or police car – hurtling past you in the direction of your neighborhood. In that moment, you’ll inevitably feel an unsettled knot tighten in your stomach, for fear that something may have happened to someone you love.
When an aircraft steers off course and diverts on the North Atlantic, it has hundreds of people aboard, all of whom have loved ones at home, some of whom could be tracking their progress in flight. Speculating on social media just sends those emotional sirens screaming by for anyone who knows someone traveling on that aircraft.
There’s also a more practical reason we are tight lipped: the airport and its partners may know why an aircraft is diverting, but these emergency situations are almost always dynamic and ever-changing. The smoke in the galley may well be a smoldering coffee pot. In aviation, nothing is certain until it is known. A few years ago, a captain let us know a passenger had been pronounced dead by an onboard physician and they were diverting. We aren’t entirely sure what happened, but the aircraft landed at Gander, and the deceased walked past the waiting hearse on the ramp and headed to the hospital for observation. The next day, he boarded another aircraft with the doctor’s blessing. So …. you just don’t know. In scenarios where a passenger has passed away aboard a flight, airlines and aviation authorities have a strict next of kin notification policy. Again, we think first of the family and aren’t going to reveal anything that increases worry. Disclosure also begs the bigger question of people’s right to know and what might be in the public interest.
About half the time, diversions at our airport are the result of a medical issue. About half of those are cardiac related. The rest are typically mechanical issues. Occasionally, there are nervy issues of distressed aircraft, but 90% of those are entirely benign - the aircraft diverts to get something checked out as a matter of due diligence and safety first. Thankfully, in the modern age, there are very few diversions for unruly passenger behavior. If you compare the annual movements of commercial airliners on the North Atlantic versus the number of diversions to alternate airports like Gander, you’ll see the system remains incredibly efficient and safe.
So, if you ask why and we don’t tell, that’s the explanation.