The Tour Operator's Fly or Don't Fly Decision

It should be about client experience, shouldn’t it?

Yesterday, like all other days I’m scheduled to fly, I faced a pilot’s usual weather-related fly/don’t fly decision. While the weather in Arizona is usually so good that flying is possible just about every day of the year, yesterday’s weather forecast was different. It required me to make a real decision.

SDL to Meteor Crater

As this marked-up WAC shows, the most direct route I’d take for this flight has us spending extended periods of time at high elevation over mountains.

I was scheduled to do a custom tour of Meteor Crater and the Grand Falls of the Little Colorado River in northern Arizona with a lunch stop on the return trip in Sedona. The total flight time would be about three hours, with much of it conducted over mountainous or high altitude (or both) terrain.

The Weather

I’d been watching the weather forecasts for Winslow (east of the Crater), Flagstaff (between the Grand Falls and Sedona), and Sedona for a few days. Earlier in the week, there had been a 10% chance of snow in the Flagstaff area. That wasn’t worrying me much. What did worry me was the wind forecast: 20 mph plus gusts. That would make for an uncomfortable and possibly very unpleasant flight.

On the morning of the flight, the weather forecast had taken a turn for the worse. According to NOAA what I was looking at for the places we’d fly over:

Phoenix: Sunny, with a high near 64. Breezy, with a south southwest wind between 7 and 17 mph, with gusts as high as 28 mph.

Sedona: A 10 percent chance of showers after 11am. Partly cloudy, with a high near 58. South wind 6 to 9 mph increasing to between 18 and 21 mph. Winds could gust as high as 33 mph.

Flagstaff: A 30 percent chance of snow showers after 11am. Partly cloudy, with a high near 43. Breezy, with a southwest wind 8 to 11 mph increasing to between 20 and 23 mph. Winds could gust as high as 37 mph. Total daytime snow accumulation of less than a half inch possible.

Winslow: Sunny, with a high near 58. Breezy, with a south wind 8 to 11 mph increasing to between 25 and 28 mph. Winds could gust as high as 44 mph.

To be fair, we weren’t actually flying to Winslow. But we’d be about 20 miles to the west, on the same big, flat, windswept plateau.

But if that wasn’t bad enough, there was also a Hazardous Weather Outlook for entire area:

A VIGOROUS PACIFIC LOW WILL BRUSH NORTHERN ARIZONA BRINGING SOUTHWEST WINDS OF 15 TO 25 MPH WITH LOCAL GUST TO NEAR 40 MPH AND COOLER TEMPERATURES. IN ADDITION…PARTLY TO MOSTLY CLOUDY SKIES WILL SPREAD ACROSS THE AREA WITH SCATTERED SHOWERS DEVELOPING FROM ABOUT FLAGSTAFF NORTHWARD TO THE ARIZONA…UTAH BORDER. THE SNOW LEVEL WILL RANGE FROM 4000 TO 5000 FEET BY THIS AFTERNOON

Flagstaff is at 7000 feet.

I know from 2,300 hours experience flying helicopters all over the southwest that when the winds get above 20 mph and you’re flying over mountainous terrain, you’re in for a rough ride. A 15 mph gust spread in the mountains can make you feel as if you’re riding a bull at a rodeo.

And a 10% to 30% chance of rain or show showers didn’t make the situation any better. I’ve been in snow showers in the Sedona area that cut visibility to less than a mile in localized areas. Not very scenic.

The Decision

There are three ways I could make the decision:

  • Do I have to go? The simple truth is that if I had to make the flight — for example, if it were a matter of life and death — I could. I’ve flown in high winds before and although it caused white knuckles and a lot of in-flight stress, it was doable. But this was not a “must go” situation.
  • If paying passengers weren’t involved, would I go? The answer to this one was no, I wouldn’t. If this were a personal pleasure flight, I simply wouldn’t make the trip that day. I don’t take much pleasure in a rodeo ride 500-1000 feet off the ground.
  • Would passengers enjoy the trip? I’d guess the answer would be no. I fact, I’d expect the passengers to actually experience fear at least once during the flight. Turbulence are scary, especially when you seldom experience them — or have never experienced them in a small aircraft.

So the decision was actually quite simple: I would call the client and advise that we not make the trip that day. I could offer a tour of Phoenix (relatively flat, a shorter flight, much lighter winds) or the same trip the next day when the weather was expected to be much better.

I’m Selling an Experience

This is what separates me from the tour operator I worked for at the Grand Canyon back in 2004. In the spring, we routinely flew in winds up to 50 miles per hour, with fights that were so bumpy that even I, as the pilot, was starting to get sick. (Puking passengers was a daily occurrence.) Keeping in mind that we did “scenic” flights, near the end of the season, we occasionally flew in conditions with minimal visibility due to thunderstorm activity and smoke from forest fires (planned and unplanned). After one flight, when the visibility was so bad that I had trouble finding my way back to the airport, I asked the Chief Pilot why we were flying. After all, the passengers couldn’t see any more than I could. His response was, “If they’re willing to pay, we’re willing to fly.”

I don’t have this same attitude. My passengers are paying me for a pleasant, scenic tour. While I can’t control the weather, I can control when we fly. If I suspect that the weather will make the trip significantly unpleasant — or possibly scare the bejesus out of them — how can I, in good conscience, sell them the flight?

I’m not saying that I won’t fly in less than perfect conditions, but if the conditions are downright horrible for flight, why should I subject my passengers — or myself — to those conditions?

I called the passenger and explained the situation. He consulted his wife. They agreed to do the flight the next day. He seemed happy that I’d called and given him the choice.

I’m sure we’ll all have a great time.

3 thoughts on “The Tour Operator's Fly or Don't Fly Decision

  1. Excellent,

    To be honest if I was the customer, I too would have been delighted by the customer service.

    Same time this attitude wont pay your bills for long in competetive corporate world.(Although exceptions will be there)

    • Siddharth: My goal is to provide the best service I can — not to suck money out of clients. I truly believe that by giving my clients the best service I can, they’ll spread the word and get me more business. In the end, I’ll do fine.

      I will not compromise my personal values just to make money. That’s just wrong.

      No, I’ll never get rich in this business. But I’ve accepted that and now make my decisions accordingly.

  2. Maria,

    I do appreciate your goal and values. So I can guess this is what made you come out of the working under management and start up your own business.

    As an independent business owner, you are free to set up and exercise your own goals. words-of-mouth publicity works just fine and great, but me thinks it takes time, so sustainibility will be important and unique for each case.

    As for the grand Canyon chief pilot, he wont be setting up the business model or its goals(assuming he is not a decision maker in business but only in operations). And for a tour operator with huge number of only-one-timer tourists mouth publicity maynot work that badly. So the business model just works great for tour operator, agreed even though its just wrong.

    cheers

    Sid

What do you think?