Tension on the tarmac

September 23 2003

More glamorous business travel....
I arrived at O'Hare today with plenty of time for my flight.  Colleagues in Boston had reported an approaching storm, so I wanted to get moving as quickly as possible.  Unfortunately, a down-to-the-wire conference call meant that I couldn't catch the earlier flight out.
The 2: 05 PM flight boarded quickly and moved out of the gate.  Just short of the runway, we pulled off into the "penalty box" and the engines were shut off.  Neither of those are good signs.
The captain announced a few minutes later that we were in a weather hold from Boston Air Traffic Control (shocking), and that we'd be sitting for 100 minutes.  I hate when they pull off the gate in these situations -- they obviously know there is weather in the destination city, and we could just happily sit at the gate.
Well, that hour and 40 minutes passed.  The next update was, well, Boston is shut down, folks, and gee I'm really sorry, but ATC says they will have an update for us in an hour.  A few minutes later, he changes his mind and says that AA dispatch is indicating we could be flying in 30-40 minutes.
Another hour passes; obviously AA dispatch is wrong.  We eventually get another update, that says that planes are now landing in Boston, but the backup means that we won't be able to take off until 6 PM.  Oh, and we can't go back to the gate or we'll lose our place in line.
Not surprisingly, things aboard this MD-80 started getting a little tense after that.  The cell phones are buzzing; passengers are calling AA's customer service line, but of course they can't do anything.
One passenger starts threatening to have the plane ordered back to the gate, since he will miss his evening meeting in Boston and thus, wants to get off the flight.  He speaks firmly and rudely to the flight attendants, demanding to speak to the captain.  The captain wisely uses the lead flight attendant as a relay, and insists that we can't go back.  The man starts making phone calls and vaguely threatening remarks... I start to worry that he will cause a disturbance, which would in fact mean we'd be going back to the gate -- and probably not to Boston at all tonight.
Eventually, at 5:45 PM, the captain announces that we've been cleared for takeoff.  As the flight attendants come through the aisles to check seatbelts and cell phones, the agitated man again asks "why aren't we going back to the gate?"  Now that we are airborne, every so often, I find myself glancing his way -- worried he is going to go postal or something.  The captain continues to be wise, and hasn't come out of the cockpit once -- must have a cast-iron bladder!
So, the final score -- 3 hours, 45 minutes ground hold on the tarmac, scheduled arrival in Boston 3 hours late (I guess we could still end up circling, yikes!).
The excuse of "weather" only goes so far in this case.  I knew the storm was approaching Boston; why did AA board and push back from the gate in that circumstance?  Why did ATC and AA's dispatch offer conflicting information?  The real crime is the flight after us -- also boarded, not sure if they pushed away or not, but they too sat somewhere waiting for clearance.
I seem to remember there was a case a couple of years ago where a Northwest Airlines flight spent six hours on the tarmac.  That one was probably worse -- here at least, the flight attendants did offer beverages and pretzels, the lavatories were working, and we could use cellphones and computers.  Still, we were sitting on the plane for almost double the flying time of this short flight without leaving -- shouldn't there have been a better way to handle this?

Post a Comment