Wednesday, October 04, 2006

It's A Trip To England, Charlie Brown: Part Two

United Flight 929: Grounded

Upon boarding the plane, I found my seat and stowed my backpack in the overhead compartment in compliance with FAA rules. I read the safety manual. I learned how to open the emergency exit, which would be my responsibility should the plane go down. The plane had only two seats per side in the exit rows. No one was seated next to me, though, so I had my pick. I opted for the aisle seat, since it provided enough legroom that I could stretch my legs completely out if I wished. It also had the advantage of being the seat printed on my ticket, in case I got challenged.

I settled in with my iPod and made some idle chatter with a couple of the folks around me. There was a large group travelling together but spread out all over the cheap seats, and two of them were behind me.

Before too long, the pilot came on the PA, saying we were going to be delayed for perhaps 45 minutes due to weather. This was the first announcement in what would become a series of 30-minutes-to-an-hour promises which would continue for several hours. I sent a text message to Craig asking him to check the weather and give me an estimate as to when it would clear. He texted me back saying that the weather was fine, asking if I meant the weather in London.

At first, I thought he was paying me back for when he was in Seattle, and I ended an email to him with "Sorry about your cat," who I was feeding while he was away. I thought he would assume I was joking, but he apparently spent a few minutes imagining what life would be like without his furry friend. So, Craig, I apologize again. But with the plane shaking around, the lightning and what sounded like hail buffeting our little craft, I assumed he was kidding around.

But it turned out that he was in class (he's getting his master's at night), and the weather was fine when he went in. So he didn't know that it was storming. The pilot came back on and said that the ramps were closed, and they had pulled all personnel off of the field. He guessed it would be another hour.

Maybe an hour after that, he came on again to say that everything was fine, and we'd be departing shortly. Planes that had been circling had first dibs on the runways, but he thought we'd get out pretty soon after that. 30 minutes or so.

So we waited. they came by and offered us water a couple of times. People began to ask about maybe getting some food, and received only vague answers.

The pilot came on again. Actually, this was a different pilot, because somewhere around 9:30 o'clock, they switched crews on us. He spoke floridly of weather from the west. He told us the airport was closed and that all flights were grounded. He said all the circling flights had gone off to other airports. He said it would be maybe an hour before things cleared up.

So we waited. Most of us were getting up periodically to stretch, and my legroom became the waiting area for the bathroom. We were offered water again, but no food. They showed the movie, proving that the "about an hour" stuff was just crap. I watched A Scanner Darkly (not nearly as good as I'd hoped, but at least they didn't show United 93), sipped my water, tried to relax and to not think about smoking.

At 11:30 they passed out little granola bars. But didn't offer us water. I had tried to bring water with me, and had been assured that liquids purchased past the security checkpoint would be allowed on board, but they made me toss it before boarding. I guess it's all about control with these people.

At 11:45, a guy came onto the plane with a ticket for the seat beside me. I was pretty crabby and barked at him a couple times when he sat down. OK, not literally, but he kept asking me questions and I was...uh...terse with him. Very terse.

Around midnight, I sent another text to Craig, mostly just saying we were still sitting there and that I was very crabby. I wondered how long we would be waiting, and for the first time it ocurred to me that I might not even get there in time to keep my hotel reservation.

And then there was a weird noise, and someone rushed by me in a gray t-shirt. I looked down and saw that someone had been sick on the floor next to me. It took me a minute to realize that I had vomit all over the left side of my jacket. I had felt it hit my hand, but didn't connect it to the noise or the running person for a few seconds. Our gray-shirted friend was moving quickly, and most of us who caught a glimpse thought it was a man, but someone who followed up a little better told me that it was a woman, and that she'd had a bad reaction to some medication. I didn't actually ever see her again myself.

The woman one row back and across the aisle had also been struck, mostly on her blanket, which she hurled at the floor next to the mess.

"You need to get a cleaning crew on here now," she yelled at the flight attendant, who nodded, but began talking to the pilot on the intercom instead.

I caught the eye of the same flight attendant. "Could, uh...could I get some napkins?" I asked. Again she nodded and kept talking to the pilot, reading out some affected seat numbers.

"I want antiseptics and a cleaning crew. I want you to get me some antibiotics. Who knows what that person had," the woman yelled.

"Maam, antibiotics would require us to get EMTs here," the flight attendant (who I'm gonna call Ruth) said.

"Then get them here," she hissed. "I want a change of clothes and a shower. Who knows what that person had."

Now, when I first caught on that someone had thrown up, and that they had gotten some of it on me, I was pretty pissed. I had already been in a black mood. But as the woman across from me (who I'm gonna call Freakout) became more and more hysterical, I calmed down quickly. Her verbalizing any possible fear that any of us might have had made these concerns seem silly. Because it was impossible to take her seriously.

"We've got to find that monkey, run some tests," I muttered, thinking of Outbreak. But Freakout was certainly acting like we'd all be dead within hours. The guy next to me, and a different flight attendant laughed.

"Excuse me," I said to Ruth.

"Sir, I'm gonna need you to..."

"Yeah. I just...I still need some napkins. That's all I'm asking for. Because..." I waved my left arm at her.

At this point another flight attendant (who we'll call Sara) came by and asked me to take off my jacket. She guided me to a bathroom where I could wash up. I gave her the jacket without thinking about the fact that my iPod, passport, house keys, glasses and many other essential items were nestled within the pockets.

I washed up and returned to my seat. Freakout was gone, and I was told she went to shower. A cleaning crew was on the way, but no EMTs. I guess they talked her out of that one. I asked my seatmate if he thought that the cleaning crew would be wearing biohazard gear. He laughed.

Two scruffy guys showed up and began to clean. They were kind enough to remove my seat cushion completely, clean it, and put on a new cover. I was given a new pillow and blanket which were much nicer than the others in our section. The blanket, in addition to being thicker and having a better weave, was only a foot or so too short to be used by me as a blanket, rather than the normal two to three feet.

Sara, who had taken my jacket somewhere, came back with the contents of my pockets. Before the flight was over she ended up thanking me about a dozen times for being so laid back about the whole "incident."

I'm told Freakout eventually got back on the plane, and that she had a germ phobia. I think I said "Germ phobia? You think?" I never saw her myself. Her seat had been cleaned up and given to someone flying standby. I chatted a bit with my seatmate, placing a wager that we would leave around 2:15, since that's when we were originally scheduled to land at Heathrow.

His previous flight had landed amid terrifying lightning flashes and then sat on the runway for three hours. So he wasn't having an ideal travel experience either.

We left the gate at about 1:30. I'm told that the website told inquiring folks that we were in the air at that time, but our actual takeoff was almost exactly 2:15, making all of the various delays total about eight hours.

Part Three will include the flight itself and the journey to the hotel. It'll be a lot shorter than this one, and should be ready before y'all leave work, but for now I'm gonna go enjoy London, if you don't mind.


Scott Sherrin said...

I was wondering why you hadn't posted anything...apparently you were still in the air.

This has to be one of the funnier (not to you I'm sure) airline delay stories I've heard. Here's hoping no one else vomits on you while you're there.

The Moon Topples said...

There's a chance I'm still on that plane. And all of this is a dream.

I guess if everything had gone well, I not only would have had less to write about, but would have had more trouble naming the posts.

In part 3, you'll find out the terrible things that happened to my luggage and my back.

But then the posts will get less negative. 'Cause I'm having fun now.


CC2383 said...

At least YOU didn't throw up, thank god for Dramamine!

Hopefully the flight home will be much more mellow... When do you get home anyway?