Jumpseat: How to Send Passengers to Competitors

An airline’s mishandling of a debacle could have passengers looking elsewhere for future trips. Illustration by Tim Barker

When my cellphone buzzed to life at 0402, I knew it wouldn’t be good news. (A phone call at that time of morning is never good news.) The caller ID displayed “Crew Schedule.”

According to the dim red glow of the alarm clock, my reserve assignment period had just begun two minutes prior. I hadn’t been standing at attention in uniform with my bags packed.

During the night, a trip to London Heathrow Airport from JFK had to return because of a transponder issue two hours into the flight. Apparently, the main control head of the two transponders compelled both units to ­enter the test mode, which rendered the entire system inoperative. It left ATC without a discrete radar target to track. In this post-9/11 world, that makes controllers nervous. So before the airplane was allowed home, the flight was instructed to complete a series of turns to confirm it was under the crew’s control.

The airplane returned to JFK at 0330. After ­another 777 was found, the flight was then rescheduled for an 0800 departure. Enter yours truly. I couldn’t quite match the enthusiasm of the crew scheduler, but I did my best to acknowledge the reserve assignment with mostly intelligible sentences. Attempting not to further disturb my wife, I successfully packed and dressed from within our walk-in closet.

Needless to say, by the time my copilot, Bruce, and I arrived at the gate, our passengers were a wee bit cranky. The passengers were not afforded a hotel room because the interval between their return and the rescheduled departure was relatively short. They were milling about the gate like zombies who had just seen the light of day — which they had.

Bruce and I were surprised that our customers weren’t already on board, or at least in the process thereof. Unfortunately, we discovered the reason. The catering people were unable to service the airplane because the ground crew from a flight far, far away had deposited bags and cargo so as to block the food trucks. This insurmountable problem incurred an hour delay. But wait, there’s more.

The change in airplanes created another issue. The airplane with the broken transponder was a two-class service configuration, whereas our airplane was the older three-class service configuration. According to the gate agents, this minor detail was not reflected on their computer seating charts until just prior to boarding. Are you seeing where this is going?

The gate agents’ solution was to manually reissue boarding passes — a lovely task for a seating capacity of just fewer than 300 people. For those folks who had paid extra for more legroom, well, that was another pleasant surprise. Automatic refunds were promised. I can only hope the refunds were forthcoming.

As you might have guessed, the boarding-pass reissue process progressed at a snail’s pace. Passengers trickled down the jet bridge in gaggles, providing a better opportunity for them to treat our greeting flight attendants as pincushions for expressing their justifiable frustrations. For that reason, I periodically took a position by the ­entry door to help soften the blows — not that my 5-foot-8 presence deterred abuse.

Having witnessed the discontent, I later included a “no abuse of flight attendant” clause in my PA just prior to takeoff. Unfortunately, all the flight attendants were fairly junior in seniority, having been called out on reserve like myself. But they became unwitting benefactors of an airline having a really bad day.

To add insult to injury, an intoxicated passenger was harassing the gate agents by appearing and reappearing in the boarding lounge. No one could determine his identity. He was using various forms of heckling techniques, similar to a political rally. I indicated a refusal to board this passenger, but apparently he vanished into thin air.

The entire debacle delayed our pushback from the gate by two hours and five minutes. No big deal for Bruce and me other than a very short and barely legal layover, but it meant arriving in London after 2200 local, too late for passenger connections.

I was a little guilt ridden on Bruce’s behalf because the month prior, when we had flown to Barcelona together, I had advocated bidding a reserve schedule. Normally, a ­reserve pilot doesn’t fly as frequently, but Bruce’s experience was the opposite. His goal was to garner enough time to complete major steps in building his RV-8 — not so much.

Our approach to Heathrow’s Runway 9L presented us with a 900-foot ceiling and 2 miles visibility in light rain. It was a routine arrival, except for an erratic glideslope ­indication, an anomaly that apparently hadn’t been ­experienced by other aircraft. Go figure. In addition, the wiper on Bruce’s windscreen decided to fail on our taxi to the gate when we needed it the most. Par for the course, the errant wiper arose from the dead just prior to our complete stop at the gate.

The following morning’s Heathrow departure offered a new challenge. Our computer-guided 777 was not communicating with our flight management computer (FMC). The mechanics used a typical troubleshooting procedure and recycled both aircraft information management system circuit breakers. Unfortunately, one of the circuit breakers would not physically reset to the closed position. Not good.

Among many considerations, one idea was to replace the actual circuit breaker. In the end, the solution was to depower the entire airplane. Yup, control-alt-delete saved the day. We departed 45 minutes late but arrived to JFK almost on schedule due to favorable winds across the North Atlantic.

Interestingly enough, our airplane was not originally assigned to our flight. It was being rerouted to JFK for disinfection because of a discrepancy that reported cockroaches in the cabin. My apologies, but the pun has to be said — the airplane had bugs.

Although trivial in the scheme of procedures, the North Atlantic track system had been redesigned to reduce lateral separation for appropriately equipped airplanes. The redesign’s purpose is to allow for more traffic.

Participants utilize “half tracks.” Rather than flying between whole waypoints, i.e. 45 degrees north/30 degrees west, assigned airplanes navigate to 45.5 degrees north/30 degrees west instead.

On this flight, we were assigned a half track, a procedure we had never experienced. No big deal, but it required a careful check with our FMC. In addition, the ­contingency procedures for emergencies when diverting off the ­assigned track required increased vigilance because of our closer proximity to other flights.

Having survived the new navigation practice, we also survived my crosswind landing on JFK’s Runway 31R. The pilot stuff seemed to be the least problematic compared to the other challenges. In regard to the other challenges, my airline failed miserably. It has been my experience that passengers are mostly accepting of failures if the appropriate communication occurs. It did not.

Our report card deserved an F that night. Most likely, our report card will come in the form of some passengers establishing frequent flyer miles with our competitors.

I am embarrassed and dismayed that my four stripes could do nothing to solve the problems other than to offer an apology.

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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