Abrupt U-turns are rarely an indication that something has gone exactly as intended. They are the change of direction caused by each missed turning, each botched product launch, each political policy failure.
In the air, unless you’re part of an aeronautical display team or are pulling an advertising banner above a sporting event, you can be fairly certain that your aircraft’s 180-degree change in direction is not a sign that things are going according to plan.
After the briefest flirtation with Canada’s eastern seaboard, the GPS red line that had so confidently marked our progress to London was bounced back towards the west – as if repelled by an opposing magnetic force.
Yet, somehow, I wasn’t surprised. After the events of earlier in the evening, there was a certain air of inevitability about this latest development; like a Hollywood script writer’s final, desperate grasp for a scarcely believable twist in the tale.
And everything had started out so well, too.
We arrived at Charlotte airport with plenty of time to spare. Check-in and security were dispatched in record time. Our 6:45pm plane to London was parked at the gate. An hour before departure time, the crew boarded the plane. All promising signs. We would be in London for breakfast.
Boarding time came and went. Smiles slowly disappeared from the faces of the airline’s gate team, promptly followed by the dreaded words, “We are currently investigating a maintenance issue with the aircraft.” The nightmare had begun.
Then, like a spreading disease, texted alerts started pinging our phones and those of our fellow passengers.
A thirty minute delay became one hour; one hour became two; two hours soon became three. Breakfast in London changed to lunch. Frustrating, yes, but not exactly a unique experience in the field of modern-day commercial air travel.
Knowing that there was another flight to London scheduled to leave at 10:30pm, and with our confidence in our original flight fading fast, we asked about the possibility of switching to the later plane – hoping to get ahead of the rebooking rush when our flight was finally, inevitably cancelled.
Quite reasonably, we were advised that, as we had checked bags, we could not change our reservation unless the original flight is cancelled.
Much to our surprise, shortly before 9:00pm and after the departure time had changed to 9:50pm, we were finally invited to board the aircraft.
We took our seats, consumed a pre-flight drink, and ordered our evening meal – happy to put the three hour delay behind us. Then the captain addressed the plane.
The problem they thought they had fixed had not, in fact, been fixed at all. We were instructed to deplane (I still don’t accept that’s a word, by the way) and, with apology bottles of water in hand, were once again standing in the queue at the customer service desk.
Still blissfully unaware of the unknown depths our travel day had yet to explore, we happily took our seats on the 10:30pm flight, consumed another pre-flight drink, and ordered another evening meal – happy to put the flight cancellation behind us. Then the captain addressed the plane.
He announced that the flight would be delayed while the airline arranged to move the checked bags (ours included) of passengers who had been rebooked onto this flight. He estimated the process would take approximately one hour.
At 11:30pm, what was merely frustrating became hidden-camera farcical.
With all bags loaded and with the plane ready to push back from the gate, it was discovered that all of the ground crew able to operate the requisite machinery had long since left for home. Another 40 minute delay ensued while someone with the appropriate skills (I suspect it was just a cleaner with a driving license) was pressganged into service to act as our aircraft’s reverse gear.
Shortly after midnight, nearly six hours after our originally scheduled departure time, we were finally in the air.
The next two hours restored a modicum of normality. The ordered meal was eaten this time; weary passengers were sleeping; others were watching movies. Except one.
Just as we were about to head out over the Atlantic, an unruly passenger ensured we went no further.
My attention had initially been drawn to a fellow passenger standing toward the front of the aircraft. Hiding behind a cabinet near the front left door, he would occasionally peer around the side, looking back into the cabin – retreating suddenly, like a child playing hide-and-seek, each time he suspected he had been spotted.
But he wasn’t the problem; he was merely its closest victim.
As events began to unfold, any thought of sleep or movie watching was gone from my mind. This was obviously serious.
A few minutes later, a member of the cabin crew approached me to ask if I would be prepared to assist with restraining a disruptive passenger. My selection, I’m sure, was more the result of me being one of the few people awake than it was an acknowledgement of suspected physical prowess.
He went on to advise me that a female passenger had been attempting to break the aircraft’s windows with her entertainment system’s handset, had been offensive to fellow passengers, had attempted to enter the cockpit and was continuing to make threats to the crew.
We set to work.
Advising her that there was a problem with her seat (not exactly subterfuge as she had apparently spent most of the last two hours trying to dismantle it), we managed to convince her to stand up while we “checked it”. At that point, I grabbed her arms and secured her hands behind her back in laughably insubstantial plastic zip-ties. She managed to free herself twice before the duct tape was deployed.
As the excitement continued, Mr. Hide-and-Seek bravely remained behind the bulk head, emerging at brief intervals to take photos of the event before heroically retreating to hide among the drinks trolleys.
By this time, although our unruly passenger now appeared to have calmed down, with thousands of miles of ocean directly ahead, the captain had seen enough. Citing a security breach, he turned the plane around. Philadelphia would be our next stop.
At 4:30am, twelve hours after leaving home and with only a short excursion into one other time zone to show for our efforts, we landed in Philadelphia – where our disruptive companion was escorted off of the plane, followed by howls of derision from 250 exhausted passengers, an ocean away from where they expected to be at this time.
As we waited to find out our options for getting to London, we were asked by an elderly British passenger what had happened.
Once we explained the situation to her, she quite calmly suggested that the miscreant should be shot.
Now, I haven’t lived in the UK for a couple of decades and can’t recall such depth of passion – certainly not among the septuagenarian section of the population. I can only surmise, therefore, that in my absence from the country the threat of murdering someone in cold blood has become a colloquialism for withholding access to cups of tea.
Rejecting the tempting offer to sit in the baggage hold on a later London-bound flight from Philadelphia, we decided to fly back to Charlotte and try to get to London again on the same 10:30pm flight – on what had now become that evening. This would allow us to go back home and get some sleep before heading back to the airport.
Three planes and 19 hours after we had left it the previous day, we arrived home. We had travelled over 2,400 miles for a net distance of exactly zero.
On a positive note, at least our third attempt in 24 hours to reach London started well.
Boarding commenced on time. A few minutes later, we took our seats, consumed another pre-flight drink, and ordered yet another evening meal – happy to put the last 24 hours behind us. Then the captain addressed the plane.
He announced that the flight would be delayed while a minor maintenance issue was investigated. He estimated it would take 15 – 20 minutes to fix.
With a sense of foreboding, I advised one of the cabin crew to make sure that they didn’t let all of the ground crew leave for home. It was a good thing. Two hours later we were still at the gate, with what would constitute our ground crew asleep on a baggage conveyor belt.
As the wait dragged on, we entertained the crew and our latest set of fellow passengers with stories of yesterday’s excitement. Mr. Hide-and-Seek from yesterday’s flight was also on the plane, no doubt proudly recalling his selfless, single-handed acts of mid-air bravery.
Maybe initially entertained, his closest seat companion soon began to drink himself into oblivion – which he achieved with such success the crew were unable to wake him when it was finally time to depart.
When he did eventually come out of his coma, clearly disoriented, he decided to stand up just as the plane turned onto the end of the runway. Although he had at least 50 pounds on me, I resolved that, should he make one further step, I would deploy the tackling expertise gained on the cold, wind-swept rugby fields of my youth. Just try it, mate. See how far you get. Thankfully, he sat back down and resumed his coma.
At 00:30 on Thursday, after another two-hour delay, we cheered wildly as our plane once again lifted into the sky and headed eastward.
We arrived at our destination 42 hours late and, by then, reports of our experiences with the unruly passenger had hit the press. Various articles (click here) included a reference to an “unknown male” who assisted the cabin crew.
I can sense a new nickname in my future.
6th August 2015
It would be remiss of me not to mention a truly exceptional customer service experience that occurred during the course of our travel nightmare.
Gabriel from the American Airlines customer service desk in Charlotte was outstanding. He was the representative who originally advised us we could not rebook onto the later London flight unless our original flight was cancelled.
Later, while on his break, he noticed the Charlotte to London flight had indeed been cancelled. Remembering his earlier conversation with us, he returned to work and tried to find our booking. All he knew was that we were a party of three in business class; he didn’t know our names. He found what he thought was our booking – and waited.
As we reached the front of the customer service queue, Gabriel was standing by the side of the desk, ready to help us. He called us over and, within minutes, while he could still have been taking a deserved break from what has to be one of the world’s most thankless jobs, he had booked us onto the 10:30pm flight.
Among the ruins of our travel day, Gabriel’s assistance stood tall. I don’t have the heart to tell him what happened next.