Delta's well-orchestrated flight into and out of Puerto Rico as category 5 Hurricane Irma approached off the island's east coast captured the imagination of first the Twittersphere, then mainstream media.
"Delta flight flies where others fear to tread," marveled Fox News. "This Delta flight raced Irma and won," cheered the Washington Post. "Delta Flight Flew Through Irma, One of the Most Powerful Hurricanes Recorded — and All 173 Passengers Are Safe," enthused People.com.
For the cross-divisional Delta team that pulled it off Wednesday, the quick-turn "mission" wasn't that remarkable. They said they were simply doing what they do every day: working together, solving problems and serving customers with safety always at the forefront.
Based on the timing and trajectory of the storm, "we felt confident we could get a flight in and get those customers out, and do it safely," said Janine Mardell, the flight superintendent at Delta's Operations and Customer Center in Atlanta who coordinated the flight plan and managed the first leg of the flight from New York-JFK into San Juan. "It's what we do. The remarkable thing was the cooperation, the huge team effort."
Indeed, it took dozens of Delta employees to make it happen, from operations personnel and Delta's meteorology team in Atlanta to the pilots and flight attendants in the air to customer service and ramp employees in New York and San Juan.
It started with conversations at Delta's operations center in Atlanta, as Mardell and colleagues discussed the options with the captain. With Irma's outer band already hitting Puerto Rico, prompting other flights to divert, Delta meteorologists were confident the band would pass, creating a window during which winds and rain would subside significantly and allow for the flight's safe arrival.
The operations center conferred with Michael Luciano, Delta's station manager in San Juan, in charge of the carrier's operations at the airport. Luciano was immediately supportive, knowing there were Delta customers who were eager to escape Irma's path. He talked with government officials, TSA and the airport authority to get their backing.
The pilot, New York-based Capt. Ben Vorhees, gathered the flight attendants in the flight deck to listen to Mardell describe the forecast and plan.
With one final assurance from Delta Meteorology, Flight 431 headed south from JFK and the Boeing 737-900ER caught the attention of aviation blogger Jason Rabinowitz, who live-tweeted the flight's progress.
Rabinowitz noted that American Airlines and Jet Blue had just flown to the area and turned around. Rabinowitz tweeted: "You really want to fly into SJU during a category 5 hurricane, DL431?"
Delta Flight 302 flew through one of the most powerful hurricanes ever recorded. How? Like a boss. https://t.co/0IC54Tm295— WIRED (@WIRED) September 7, 2017
Mardell said the Delta team was fully confident that the flight would be a safe one. The operations group put in place a backup plan to land in Miami if needed and a mid-flight confab between the pilot, dispatcher and meteorologist was planned.
"Never once did I doubt that it was a safe operation," said Mardell. "Safety always comes first."
Capt. Vorhees said Mardell's meticulous planning and meteorology's forecast made him extremely comfortable with the flight, which he described as "uneventful."
"It wasn't even that bumpy till we got close," said Vorhees. "We knew timing would be critical, but otherwise Janine and Meteorology made it easy."
While en route, the flight crew also had the latest turbulence data available through Delta's proprietary flight weather viewer app to help predict pockets of turbulence to make the final San Juan flight as smooth as possible. Similarly, the Boeing 737-900ER is equipped with a state-of-the-art weather radar which helps flight crews detect and analyze adverse weather conditions along the route of flight.
Rabinowitz went on to tweet images of the plane climbing out of San Juan between the outer band of Irma and the core of the storm. "Amazing stuff," he wrote.
Flight 431 arrived at the gate at 12:01 p.m. to nine miles of visibility and light rain. Winds were well below operating limits for the 737 to safely operate at 28 mph, and gusts up to 36 mph, just as Delta's meteorologists had forecasted. Turbulence data downlinked from the aircraft to Delta's operations center show the aircraft encountered light to moderate turbulence as it approached San Juan.
With Irma just 90 miles away, the plane needed to get back in the air ASAP. Flight attendants saved precious time by helping to clean the plane.
While the flight was enroute, the San Juan Airport Customer Service team had already been hard at work. The ticket counter team rounded up the 173 customers, let them know the flight would leave early, shepherded them through security and to the gate. Boarding began just minutes after the aircraft arrived, and the flight was refueled and aloft in only 40 minutes – eight minutes before the airport would close.
"Our team was a model of efficiency and agility. We knew that timing was crucial and we worked in full coordination above and below wing as well as with our vendors to get the flight refueled, serviced, boarded and dispatched in 40 minutes," said Luciano, the station manager.
On his end, Capt. Charles Joyce was ready for the return flight, 302, in between Irma's bands. He, the first officer and the flight attendants had full confidence in the forecast, though they were ready for anything. Joyce, a New York-based pilot who's been flying 737s for two years, said he reviewed the training manual in his hotel room the night before, just to be sure.
"We were prepared for heavy windshear, crosswinds, strong tailwinds, but it was no worse than a summer thunderstorm in Atlanta," Joyce said. "Delta Meteorology really did a great job."
New York-based flight attendant Vikki Panan echoed that sentiment, saying, "Our in-flight team and I trusted in our meteorologists, our pilots and our own capabilities. Those customers who flew out [of San Juan] were so grateful that we got them out. They clapped and cheered when we landed back safely in JFK. I am so proud of what we did."
With 173 customers evacuated from the path of a destructive hurricane, the Delta team members moved on with their day. Employees in Atlanta and New York worked the next flights. Those in San Juan went home to protect their homes and families.
Soon after, the tweets began circulating thousands of times and the headlines hit the web.
"My brother called me and said, "You're trending on Twitter!" laughed Joyce. "I told him, I will neither accept the idiocy nor the bravery ascribed to me on the Internet. I was just doing my job."
Mardell was similarly humble. "I know it's getting all this press, but as dispatchers we make these go/no-go decisions every day. It just happened to be my flight. Anybody in the office would have done the same thing I did."