Return From Paradise

March 13, 2008

in Airplane Stories

My husband, two kids (12 and 14) and I flew from Hartford to Honolulu to visit my family this March. I am a nervous flier, but I had been noticing that my daughter was picking up on it and somehow managed to convince myself, along with her, that it was okay to just ‘give up control’ and that flying really is statistically quite safe. (I’m a math professor, so you’d think I’d really get that!) Anyhow, I did quite well on the flights to Honolulu – via O’Hare. I was quite proud of myself. We had a wonderful vacation. It was the return trip that caused me concern.

We left Honolulu at 5:00 p.m. Hawaii time, after a forty-five minute delay, and arrived in O’Hare at 5:30 a.m. Chicago time. No problem. Our flight to Hartford was scheduled for 7:10 a.m. and we boarded at 6:40. No problem. There was an announcement that we would have a short delay while the mechanics took a look at something or other – I was so tired I didn’t pay much attention to this. Same thing had happened on the flight from Honolulu. Still, no problem.

At 7:30 or so, we finally backed away from the gate and the flight attendants started their thing about the life rafts and oxygen masks. As one attendant read the card, the other would go up and down the aisles – you know the drill. The lights started flickering and the microphone went on and off as she spoke. The one in the aisle kept a poker face and kept doing her thing, but between sentences you could hear the attendant who was narrating mutter “I don’t like this!” The lights went out towards the end and the safety lights along the floor switched on. Meanwhile, you could hear muffled exclamations from the cockpit. Um, problem!

The attendant kept reading from her card, and concluded with, “If you have any questions regarding the safety of this aircraft, please contact a flight attendant.” I raised my hand, and she hurried over to assure me that the engines could generate power when we got them started, and while it was nice to have the auxiliary power, it wasn’t really necessary. I figured – okay, maybe it’s like jump-starting a car – still not exactly reassuring. Then there was the distinct odor of burning wire/plastic. At this, the flight attendant went up and pounded on the cockpit door, saying, “We’re smelling some heat out here!” And the pilot replied, “Yeah, we’re smelling it, too.”

The pilot came on to announce that we would be pulling back to the gate (we hadn’t moved more than twenty feet – or maybe they just retracted the tunnel) so that we could get out while they fixed the problem. Then he came back on a second later to say, “Folks, take all of your belongings. We don’t like the looks of this aircraft, so we’ll be getting a new plane for the flight.”

By now, my fear of flying reasserted itself, though it was dulled considerably by exhaustion. We went back into the waiting area, and my daughter and I parked ourselves in front of the window to wait and see if they really did give us a different aircraft. I looked longingly at the shiny new white and blue planes. Every flight we had been on was an ancient, patched-up looking craft. The windows didn’t match; the engines were different colors. They were the very ones that I took back when I was in college, I’m sure. I now call them “Franken-planes”.

After an hour, the desk attendant (who wasn’t told a thing, I don’t think), announced that there wasn’t a new plane, but they would be getting a new part from the hangar.

Another hour went by. The desk clerk, who was the nicest person, then announced that they had installed the part, and that we would be boarding in a few minutes. At this, the pilot went over and took her aside, where I could overhear him telling her NOT to let anyone board until he had a chance to test the equipment for himself. I loved that pilot!

Well, we watched him and the flight crew board, they spent a couple of minutes on the plane, then they came walking quickly off, left the gate and disappeared down the terminal. The desk clerk then told us to move over to another gate where another flight to Hartford was about to board. They were going to do a “consolidation”, they told us.

What this meant was that the person at the desk frantically rerouted the 120 passengers that were still left at this point. A few made it onto the next flight – as did our luggage – we watched it take off half an hour later. People went to Albany, Boston, or whatever other airport they were willing to go to. We were so exhausted, we asked if we could be put into a hotel and just get a flight the next morning. The clerk said no problem, gave us hotel vouchers, but couldn’t find another flight until 7:00 p.m. the following day – 36 hours after our original flight. We agreed to this, and waited while she then proceeded to issue us food vouchers – good for 24 hours – worth on average $5 per meal per person.

So we spent a day and a half in Chicago, at a very nice hotel. So nice that an apple cost $2.00 and with a teenage son it was impossible to eat five meals on $15 per person, total! Oh, and it cost us $74 in phone bills just to contact our boss, pet-sitter, my daughter’s school, and my mother.

We had also left our jackets in our luggage, so we wandered the streets of Chicago in flip-flops and tee shirts. We did meet very many nice people, and were greatly impressed with the Chicago transit system.

The next night our flight was delayed, but only by a mere hour and fifteen minutes. When we got into Hartford at midnight (51 hours after leaving Honolulu) we went to the baggage area and found our luggage sitting out in the middle of the floor. I laughed at the ridiculousness of it all – but wait! The topper was when a security person came running out and demanded the baggage receipts (which I have NEVER needed). I naturally couldn’t locate them, but she finally settled on checking our licenses. Oh, no, that wasn’t the most ridiculous thing – the really funny part was that she made a big deal of checking our licenses, but didn’t compare them to the actual names on the bags. Or maybe they had just been sitting there for so long, she knew them well and was waiting for us…

So, I learned that choosing the airline – United, by the way – which has the absolute minimum flying time to Honolulu is NOT the best strategy!

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary Anne April 2, 2008 at 11:51 am

Loved your story! Although I wouldn't have wanted to live your story!


Lynx636 April 2, 2009 at 6:28 pm

Kudos to that United pilot for refusing to use the damaged plane. I'd rather spend a night in Chicago than go on an unsafe airplane.


Buttons April 2, 2009 at 6:41 pm

United is notorious in my book. I refuse to fly them anymore. They've always, always delayed flights, I've had probs with aircraft having "mechanical difficulties" on the tarmac, and have been outright bumped for over 24 hours when I had a an advance purchase ticket for a weekend (2 night, three day) trip.

I'll never fly United again. I'd sooner fly SW Air (Cattle Call Air I like to call them) or America West, The Nastiest Attendants in the Sky, and you'd be hard pressed to get me to fly those either.


Anonymous April 2, 2009 at 7:30 pm

I've had more probs with Delta and "broken" planes than United, but kudos to that pilot for not flying the plane with electrical problems (IMHO, fried wiring is never a smell you should get from a piece of equipment that will be traveling 35000 feet in the air!)


Rob April 3, 2009 at 9:39 am

You're absolutely right, UA controls the physics involved in mechanical breakdowns, and failed in this instance. Our models that include random mechanical breakdowns are currently being re-worked, and are being run through probability theory matrixes to ensure a happy flying experience in the future.

It is inconvenient to identify your burned and broken remains after an accident, and we understand that. As a matter of fact, we train our pilots to independently monitor the flashing lights and levers inside a modern aircraft cockpit.

That's why our pilot did his job and refused to fly in a suicide-machine. Next time, we will have gorgeous young men and women available to serve you cappucinos while our unpredictable mechanical breakdown is repaired. We will also send you, if required, to the nearest theatre in a limousine, and put you up at the best hotel. All the expenses you incur, including those that are only perceived, will be 100% compensated.

Please note however, that telephone expenses in excess of $25 will not be covered, because we don't believe reiterating yout entire life story 10 times up to the moment of your inconvenience is warranted.

Sometimes, it's just enough to say "The plane broke, they're fixing it".

We apologize sincerely for your inconvenience.

United Airlines.


Sharon April 8, 2009 at 9:38 pm

$74 in phone calls? Were you so tired you used the hotel phone?


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