Last weekend, United Airlines Flight 108 from Newark, New Jersey, to Edinburgh, Scotland, put 2011’s Airline Passenger Bill of Rights to the test. It was not planned that way; we did not set out to see if the new regulations would kick in to help in a bad situation. But when things went wrong, rules established by the bill kept a bad scene from becoming a total disaster. I was on board and lived to tell about it.
The first leg of our travel plan on United Airlines took us through bad weather from Orlando (MCO) to Newark (EWR) rather smoothly, arriving a few minutes late at 8:15 p.m. On landing, a text from my FlightTrack Pro iPhone app informed me that our next flight, from EWR to Edinburgh, Scotland (EDI), scheduled to leave at 9:55 p.m., would be delayed until 12 p.m.
“Surely they mean 12 a.m., just a little late, not 12 p.m.,” I said out loud with the comment echoed by other passengers, also checking their phones after landing. But p.m. it was, so put up in a hotel we were – the cheesy Ramada Inn Airport hotel – along with carry-on luggage and food vouchers for dinner and breakfast.
Going back to the Newark airport the next day – a few hours early as good airline passengers on international flights do – we found a further delay for more maintenance, pushing departure to 1 p.m. Soon though, the situation improved. The flight was moved back to 12 p.m. and boarding the international flight, a process that can take some time, finally began.With boarding completed, the flight crew, who had also been ready to go since the night before, prepared the cabin and off we went – all of about two football fields in distance.
Newark airport normally has two operating runways. Today that was one working runway as the other was undergoing maintenance, placing us last in a line behind 15 planes.
A timely announcement produced some unanimous moans and groans from passengers. “Oh well, what can we do but sit here and wait.”
By the time we made it to number seven, almost an hour later, we had burned about 10,000 pounds of fuel, according to the flight crew. That’s so much fuel that we had to leave the takeoff queue, return to what the crew onboard called “the ballpark” and refuel.
“Not a big problem, we sure did not want to run out of gas crossing the Atlantic,” I thought, echoing the mood of the other passengers on board. To expedite the process, we stayed on the aircraft, avoiding a repeat of the time-consuming international flight boarding process.
But by the time fueling was complete, we were on the verge of violating part of that new passenger rights bill, which established a three-hour cumulative time limit for such delays. This is a big deal to the airlines, if for no other reason than the fact that they can be fined $17,000 per passenger if they don’t comply.
By law, at that three-hour mark, airlines are required to provide passengers on a delayed, grounded aircraft like ours with food, water, restrooms, ventilation and medical services, among other provisions.
Over the aircraft loudspeaker, the call was made by Rick Chase, International Service Manager, that if anyone wanted off the aircraft, to let the crew know and they would make it happen. Two passengers wanted off so we pulled out of the takeoff queue and waited for ground crew to come fetch them.
Back in the queue for take off after 4 p.m., it was looking like we were going to make it off the ground after all. Then a weather concern stopped the countdown.
Thunderstorms directly in our planned flight path were going to be a problem. United Airlines operations people, we were told, scrambled to file a new flight plan.
Again came the grumbles of passengers but no one wanted to be hit by lightning then plunge into the Atlantic. At about that same time, someone at United Airlines operations remembered that this particular aircraft had never flown this international route before.
Apparently, by law, custom or just an abundance of caution, a qualified mechanic must be on board when that happens, we were told. Rumor had it that due to cutbacks caused by the Continental and United Airlines merger, there were none available.
This time we did not go back to the ballpark but rather just stopped where we were and waited for the revised flight plan and a mechanic. At a little after 5 p.m., United Airlines Flight 108 finally took off, racking up a total of over 17 hours delay.
The whole situation was just bad news all around. A big part of the enduring memory though will be how very well the onboard flight crew handled the situation. Keeping us informed every step of the way, caring for our individual concerns and making the most out of a bad situation far exceeded the requirements of the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.
They took what could have turned into a very nasty situation and transformed it into a “let’s all get together for a reunion” sort of thing. To the credit of United Airlines, before we got off the aircraft we were asked to visit UnitedAirlines.com/appreciation where the airline put their money where their mouth is, offering all passengers on the flight compensation for their time and inconvenience. While the package was customized for each passenger, some included a voucher for domestic travel within a year ranging from $400 to $2000, a 20 to 50 percent discount for a future international flight, or between 15,000 and 50,000 additional frequent flier miles.
It was more of a “it’s the thought that counts” sort of offer at the time, but I bet that after thinking about the situation for a while and how very well the flight crew handled it, that most passengers will indeed give United Airlines another try.
[Photo- Chris Owen]