Flight Back to Where We Started

May 20, 2009
By
After months of waiting, the time came for my biannual journey to Chicago with my family. We purposely chose the earliest flight out of Phoenix this time, as we had tickets for a cruise along the Chicago River later that evening. Normally, we take the last flight in, but this would be a refreshing change, and would allow us more hours of daylight for activities. That morning, we woke around four in the morning, hauled our luggage out the door, and journeyed to the airport. Shivering in the early morning cold, we found our way quickly onto the terminal bus, and arrived at the terminal in a few minutes. Check-in was a breeze, and although security took around twenty minutes, it wasn’t that bad. I couldn’t have known, though, that it wouldn’t be my only time through security that day. We arrived at our gate about forty-five minutes before the flight, and soon it was time for boarding. We settled into our Economy Plus seats on United flight 1474, and my mom remarked to me how easy the morning had been, and what surprisingly little hassle we encountered. But of course, she had spoken too soon, and we were blissfully unaware of the problems we were about to encounter.


Our flight pushed back on time, quickly taxied to the runway, and took off without delay at 6:45. But then our good luck ended. Having flown out of Phoenix many times, I noticed that something wasn’t right. We didn’t seem to gain much altitude after take-off. I didn’t really give it much thought, however, until I noticed that we were taking a different route than usual. Normally, our plane turns before we reach Glendale, but I could clearly see the stadium below me as we began a slow turn. Once again I thought to myself that I was thinking too much into it, and that it might just be a departure I wasn’t familiar with. But the sight of one of Phoenix’s mountains only a thousand feet below was unnerving. Soon my suspicions were realized, and the pilots interrupted the flight attendant’s speech on purchasing snack boxes to inform us of what was happening. Over the P.A. we heard, “uh, folks, in case you haven’t noticed, we have a problem and we have to return back to Phoenix. It seems as though the landing gear won’t retract. Please remain seated and we’ll be landing shortly.” Although a hush fell over the cabin, no one seemed panicked. Being the aviation enthusiast that I am, I was excited that I had predicted correctly we had a problem, and also that I was allowed an extra take-off and landing in my trip. Of course, I couldn’t have predicted the hassle that was to come. Looking out our windows, we were treated to nice views of Phoenix and the surrounding desert at sunrise, and also to our malfunctioning gear on the engine’s reflection. As we prepared to land, a mental image of the wheels collapsing as we slammed onto the runway and the subsequent skidding of our A320 off the runway flashed through my head. An instant before touchdown, I gripped my seat. But we were spared, and landed without incident. Soon we began our bumpy taxi back to where we started. It seemed as though our plane had been fitted with hydraulics, the dream of some car owners, and we nauseatingly bounced up and down to the gate.



We taxied to the commuter terminal, and our pilot announced that it was unlikely the problem would be fixed soon, much to the dismay of the passengers. A few minutes later, stairs were attached to the aircraft, and a mechanic boarded, telling us the same thing. However, until it was certain we would not be using this plane again, we had to remain onboard. After ten minutes of uncertainty and annoyance, we were let off. We walked down the stairs, across the tarmac, and into the smallest terminal I had seen. It was the ugly stepchild of Terminal Two; a small building that contained nothing but chairs and a bathroom attached by an outdoor walkway. Unbeknownst to us at the time, it would become our home for the next four hours. We were told that all connecting passengers would be attended to first, while those whose final destination was Chicago would be neglected for the time being. One by one, hour by hour, we watched as travelers heading to all parts of the globe heard their name, and told their fate. Some were rerouted through Canada, others through another flight to Chicago. I watched as a group of young Germans said farewell to each other: none had been put on a flight back home together. The minutes passed like hours, and the hours passed like lifetimes. But after a century or so of watching everyone leave, and seeing we were among about twenty people still left, we decided to take matters into our own hands. We left the commuter terminal, walked to the main terminal, and asked the gate agent what was up. Apparently, she said, we had been rebooked onto an American Airlines flight that was due to leave soon, and from another terminal. “How soon?” we asked. “Oh, in forty-five minutes” she explained, with a touch of disappointment, as if it was our fault we were unaware of the schedule change. As we gathered our belongings and ran to Terminal Three, she shouted at us to call United for compensation.


We then hopped on the inter-terminal bus, and quickly made it to the check-in counters. The agent was pleasant, but warned us to hurry, as we had a surprise ahead of us. Because of the sudden rebooking, it appeared as though we had purchased a last-minute, one-way ticket to Chicago – highly suspicious. Arriving at the security checkpoint, the guard glanced at my ticket, saw SSSS – the abbreviation for Secondary Security Screening Selection – circled it many times in red, and told me it was my lucky day. I was directed to stand in a pen, enclosed on all sides by barriers, and waited as the guard yelled “Male, non threat!” over my head. The suspicious eyes of the passengers removing their shoes around me revealed their one hope: that I wasn’t on their flight. Soon enough, I was escorted to an area where I was patted down, and my belongings swabbed for explosives. A dozen angry glares later, the ordeal was over, and we ran to our flight, which was, of course, delayed. As we sat in the gate area, able to finally rest, we realized that we should have already been in Chicago, eating a juicy Italian beef. Instead, we were dead tired, having been up for seven hours already, still before noon.


Finally, the Fates decided to give us a break, and we were given seats at the front of the economy cabin on our MD-80. These seats had the most legroom I’ve ever had, a nice reward for the morning’s ordeal. The service onboard was efficient, and soon we had landed in Chicago, only a mere six-and-a-half hours behind schedule. But the Fates hadn’t had their fill just yet. To get our baggage, which had miraculously arrived somehow hours before us, we had to trek to the United terminal, which was two terminals, and a long walk away. After twenty minutes of walking through the crowds, we arrived, and asked for our bags. Two customer service agents later, we were directed towards a large pile of bags from the flight to nowhere, and were left to search for ours. Finding them, we left the airport, but not before directing other weary travelers from the earlier flight to the bag pile.

A week later, landing in Phoenix, we saw the decrepit plane, which just could not raise its landing gear, sitting all by itself, an eerie reminder of the hassle we had gone through. It also reminded me that nothing is ever guaranteed in the airline world. We had purchased travel from A to B, received it, albeit at a later time. In the future, I’ll think twice before purchasing that early flight, and refrain from having that “what could go wrong?” mentality.





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