Why Do Aircraft Make Technical Stops?

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to fly on Ethiopian Airlines from Addis Ababa “direct” to one of their North American destinations, you’ll know that the flight isn’t truly direct. In fact, some of these flights make an additional stop to refuel. This is just one example of a technical stop, which is something we will examine today with three examples.

Ethiopian maintenance
All Ethiopian Airlines flights to North America currently stop in Dublin for refueling. Photo: Ethiopian

What is a technical stop?

In the words of a Stack Exchange contributor, “a technical stop is for the benefit of the aircraft”. It is a stop that is used for activities such as refueling, inspection, repairs, etc. What makes it different from a fifth freedom route is that “it is not a stop for the benefit of the passengers. That is, it is not for loading or unloading passengers.”

Fifth freedom routes tend to drop off passengers from the origin at the first destination and will take aboard new passengers onward to the second destination.

For example, earlier this year, Pakistan International Airlines resumed its fifth freedom route between Tokyo Narita and Beijing Capital. The route allows passengers to fly from Islamabad (Pakistan) to Tokyo Narita, or onward to Beijing. Alternately, passengers can get on in Tokyo for a short hop to Beijing.

Ethiopian Airlines flights to North America

Ethiopian Airlines flights leaving their hub Addis Ababa and going westbound to North American destinations currently all make technical stops to refuel. Ethiopian Airlines flies to several destinations in North America including Toronto, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Newark/New York City. Soon it will also fly to Houston.

Houston and Newark flights make their stop in Lome while the service to JFK stops in Abidjan. Flights to Toronto, Chicago, and Washington DC stop in Dublin.

Currently, all of these routes require a technical stop along the way for refueling. A 2015 Dublin Airport press release explains the Ethiopian technical stop in simple terms:

“As it is a transit stop, Ethiopian will not be accepting passengers in Dublin for the onward flights to either Washington or Toronto. The refuelling stop is required on Ethiopian’s westbound journeys only, as the high altitude at Addis Ababa Airport means aircraft use more fuel on take-off there.”

Last week, R David Timmins, Senior Sales Representative at Ethiopian Airlines explained to me at the Toronto A350 arrival event that certainly these long-range aircraft have the ability to make a direct and non-stop flight to North America. However, this would prevent the aircraft from taking a full load of passengers.

UU977

Air Austral 787
Air Austral serves the DZA to CDG route with a Boeing 787-8. Photo: Boeing

Flight UU977 is an Air Austral flight that goes from Mamoudzou to Paris Charles de Gaulle. Mamoudzou is a coastal capital city of the French overseas region of Mayotte. This flight uses a Boeing 787-8. However, a technical stop is made in Nairobi (Kenya) on this route. Why? Because the runway length at Mamoudzou’s airport (Dzaoudzi-Pamandzi) is too short to take a full load of passengers and fuel.

BA1

first class demise
Could the business suite pose a threat to BA1? Photo: British Airways

Lastly, we will look at the example of flight BA1 – the British Airways all-business class service that flies from London City Airport to John F. Kennedy in New York. On this route, passengers board the flight at City Airport.

In order to be able to take off from London City’s short runway, the aircraft can only carry a certain amount of fuel. This necessitates a technical stop en route to refuel- in this case, that stop is in Shannon (Ireland).

The one quirky thing about BA1 is that all passengers disembark in Shannon to clear US customs and immigration. This means that when the aircraft continues onward to JFK, it can land as a domestic flight. As a result, all passengers can walk straight out of the airport in minutes.

Conclusion

With the above examples, technical stops are made due to aircraft limitations in relation to the altitude and runway length of their origin airports. Technical stops are rarely ideal for the passenger as it means an extra hour or more on the ground and an additional landing and take-off. At least with flight BA1 there is the advantage of pre-clearing US customers before arrival in the United States! With other flights at least passengers don’t need to get off the plane.

Have you been on any flights with technical stops? Let us know how the experience was by leaving a comment!

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