Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Ruining One's Whole Day

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published Nov. 6, 2014] © 2014 

There are two phrases that always strike fear in my heart: “packed flat for easy assembly” and “it’s a simple outpatient procedure.” I’m adding a third: “diverting to LAX for emergency landing.”

Let me tell you, those are words that really ruin your day. But as my younger son later observed, “There are worse things than making an emergency landing. Like not making an emergency landing.” 

We’d had a lovely five day reunion with Olof’s college roommates in a remote scenic location doing, among other things, blind taste tests of expensive Scotch. Or maybe that was taste tests until you went blind. Hard to remember. Our plane to San Diego was due to leave at 6 p.m. but the retired Olof had unwisely agreed to a last-minute consulting job in St. Louis for which he would need to be at the airport in San Diego the next morning at 5:30 a.m. All the earlier flights to San Diego were overbooked but we finally got standby status on a mid-afternoon flight. Having a few extra hours to repack seemed worth the standby fees and giving up our upgraded seats.

As luck (or in this case bad luck) would have it, Olof and I got on the mid-afternoon flight, but seated well apart. I prefer sitting next to Olof, the ultimate Airplane Whisperer. Want that airplane noise identified? A former Air Force pilot and frequent business traveler, he’s your guy. I’m not afraid of flying but it always give me an added feeling of security knowing that Olof could probably land many aircraft in an emergency. Well, if he remembered to bring his reading glasses into the cockpit anyway. Otherwise he’d be asking the flight attendant, “Does that say ‘up’ or ‘down’?”

When we were about 45 minutes from San Diego, cruising along around 30,000 feet, I realized I was actually going to be home in time to watch Dancing with the Stars - in real time! Back where I was sitting, the businessman next to me was reporting to the flight attendant that all the overhead air vents had stopped working. A few minutes later, he turned to me and asked if I felt the weird vibration. I had barely nodded my head when it seemed when the plane seemed to slam on its speed brakes, did a “nose over” and began losing altitude - what Olof later called “the emergency descent thrill ride.” The pilot came on the intercom and announced – in its entirety - “We are diverting to LAX for an emergency landing.” Those of us with window seats couldn’t help but notice that we were over water. I was envisioning us being the next Malaysia Airlines flight, although probably somewhat easier to find.
Whenever a plane goes down, they always interview the one or two people who at the last minute, through some quirk of fate, didn't board the plane. Well, we were going to be the schmoes who took their place.

But ultimately we leveled off again, around, I’m guessing, 10,000 feet. The businessman next to me was sweating bullets. “You know,” he said ruefully, “I just put in for retirement last week.” The plane was eerily quiet. Dancing with the Stars was looking problematical.

Olof said in the taxi home later that night that he knew even before the pilot said anything that the aircraft was having pressurization problems. Not a good thing at 30,000 feet.

A few minutes later, the pilot announced we were diverting to a different airport. I was starting to feel more sanguine about the whole thing until the plane arced around and I could see the yellow emergency vehicles with their flashing lights on the runway. Just hate that. But the plane actually landed in one piece. Nobody toasted on the tarmac. Still, a fire truck right outside your airplane window is never a sight you want to see.

A set of portable stairs was pushed up to the door and several emergency guys leapt aboard and asked if anyone had lost consciousness. But everyone seemed OK. Well, physically that is. (See “drink cart” below.)

We were all repatriated with the terminal where Olof and I watched our original 6:00 p.m. flight leave, our seats long since given away. When the airline ultimately provided a new plane, a number of the original passengers didn’t re-board. And every last passenger who did asked the same question: “This isn’t the same plane, right?”

The airline made a fortune on liquor sales on the second flight. (Would a free round been out of the question???) My businessman seat mate, Chuck (we were now best friends) who had had a cranberry juice on the first flight, was drinking double Dewars. Next to him, the guy who had ordered a Blood Mary cocktail mix on the first flight ordered three Bloody Mary’s at once.

The person I felt sorriest for (well, besides the pilot) was Olof who got all of four hours sleep before heading back to the airport. He is such a trooper.

This airline usually asks you to review your flight experience. Curiously, they didn’t ask us to review this one but did offer miles or a voucher for future travel to thank us for our patience in this “precautionary event.” I think I’m adding “precautionary event” to my list too.


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