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Ground Stop

Andrew Freedman @ 3:00 AM

"Ground Stop." The two most feared words in an airline worker's commonly-used vocabulary.

That ground stop is an economical phrase is no accident. It's pulled directly from Air Traffic Control (ATC) terminology. When someone says it, it elicits responses that run the gamut from "figures" to "Jesus." Or perhaps someone may say: "Jesus figurines," which cold be a reference to products sold at certain religion-themed shops.

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Although crisp and succinct, "ground stop" shouldn't be used by the general public to the extent it is now. It makes me think of yelling at the ground to stop doing something. Other than during an earthquake, I normally have no need to tell the ground not to move, since it's moving only imperceptibly through plate tectonics. I've never found that offensive before, since it's just the ground being the ground.

The phrase has seeped too far into the common vocabulary.

On Friday I flew from Chicago O'Hare Airport, an airport that consistently ranks at the top of the list of most delayed airports, to Boston Logan, also no bastion of airline punctuality. I was listening to ATC on the United audio headset and heard the controller tell our pilot that there was now a stop for Boston. We were to expect an update in 55 minutes.

The pilot then announced over the intercom, "Folks, I've just been informed that there's a ground stop for flights going into Boston, so we'll be sitting here for about 55 minutes at least..." Then everyone swore collectively and grabbed their cellphones to inform loved ones of said ground stop.

This phrase then leapfrogged hundreds of miles to the seaside table where my parents were dining with a dinner companion. They then had an entire conversation about the presence of the ground stop.

None of these people (other than the pilot and ATC) knew exactly what a ground stop is, or why it was put in place.

Is jargon really meant to be tossed around this freely?

According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's handy guide to acronyms, a Ground Stop works by holding aircraft that are destined for the affected airport at their departure point "for the duration of the hold." The FAA's most common reasons for a ground stop are listed as: "To control air traffic volume to airports when the
projected traffic demand is expected to exceed the airport's acceptance rate for a short period of time," and "To temporarily stop traffic allowing for the implementation of a longer-term solution, such as a Ground Delay Program."

Or it could be implemented because "The affected airport's acceptance rate has been reduced to zero." Obviously.

The acceptance rate is ATC jargon for the number of flights that an airport can handle in an hour.

A ground stop is different than a ground delay. A ground delay program is one in which aircraft are being allowed to take off for an affected destination, but they're being delayed until an ATC designated time.

This time is calculated to keep the traffic flowing to the airport at the airport's given acceptance rate.

Well, maybe these terms are simpler than what they describe.

If we're stuck with them, we should go all out rather than restrict them to the narrow-body confines of Boeings and Airbuses. For example:

"Well Jake, I've been trying to meet women, but really my romantic life is in a ground stop. I'm expecting an update soon from some women I contacted on myspace, but it's not looking good."

"Yeah buddy I hear ya, I've been in a ground delay with Sarah for weeks because she's not sure how much commitment she can handle. I'm ready to marry this girl, but her acceptance rate of my eccentricities is lower than the demand. So she keeps holding me back."

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