Layover From “Hell”?

When U.S. airspace was temporarily shut beginning on September 11, 2001, quite a few flights were diverted to Canada. Thousands of travelers were stranded for days. On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the New York Times remembered Gander, Newfoundland’s “plane people”:

They’re called “the plane people” here because on Sept. 11, 2001, some 6,700 passengers on 38 planes descended on this piney little town of about 10,000 people on the northeastern end of Newfoundland….

Of course the suicide hijackings that destroyed much of lower Manhattan and killed 3,000 were wildly outside the norm. We know that. But the “diversion to Newfoundland” thing has happened since the beginnings of the transatlantic “jet age” in the later 1950s.

Nonetheless, the other day CNN (and it seems quite a lot of other media) reported this:

Screen capture of CNN web site.
Screen capture of CNN web site.

Newfoundland is obviously often the last land mass North America-origin flights to Europe leave behind, as well as the first one flights arriving from Europe regularly encounter. Aircraft in any – even minor – difficulty do land there regularly. Preserving the lives of those on board the plane is every captain’s top concern.

I knew someone who in, oh, so long ago 1991, was on a Paris to New York TWA flight that was diverted to Gander. The passengers were told only of some vague, “minor” mechanical issue. They sat on the aircraft and waited until it took off again after having been inspected. I fictionalized it:

“Remember, too,” she laughed, “I landed in Newfoundland in Canada also.”

She indeed laughed about it afterwards, but had also arrived a couple of hours late and a bit shaken by the experience.

Invariably aircraft will have “issues” on the odd occasion. Safety diversions will always happen. So I’m unsure why this United flight’s experience has honestly warranted so much news coverage.

In noting that, I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic. I fly over the Atlantic several times a year. But we need to maintain some perspective. Have a look at this video from the United Kingdom’s NATS (air traffic control):

UK 24 from NATS on Vimeo.

Astonishing what goes on every 24 hours over the North Atlantic Ocean, isn’t it?

In the end, those passengers reached London safely – albeit seriously late. If I had been aboard, I would’ve been very relieved the plane hadn’t crashed, eagerly accepted the refund (that diversion will, all in, cost United quite a lot of money), and, from an on the ground, “customer experience” perspective, considered never flying United again.

I have to presume no one aboard wanted to risk the possible alternative. Suppose the captain, on hearing there were not nearly enough hotel rooms and that the barracks would be chilly and lack towels, had pressed on instead? Imagine if the “problem” had manifested itself fully at 37,000 feet, in -60F temperatures outside, while traveling at 600 MPH, in mid-Atlantic airspace, a thousand miles from land?

What we flippantly label “hell” is becoming, uh, like, kinda embarrassing.

But we know why this has been such “news.” The difference between “1991” (and even 2001) and “2015” is that thanks to social media we can all have a good ol’ public “whinge” by @-ing an airline on Twitter. We can also have an #Epicfail hashtag moan potentially to everyone else on the planet with an internet connection. And media organizations – which are full of people who fly, of course – will likely notice, too.

Hope you have a good Tuesday, wherever you are…. and especially if you are heading to an airport to catch a flight! 🙂


  1. It seems airline passengers are always complaining about something or the other. Sorry, the golden age of travel and civil aviation is long gone. Nowadays you’re lucky if travelling across the Atlantic is a little more pleasant than a trip on a New York subway.

    I have memories of a P&O liner to England in 1950, a TWA Super Constellation to Tokyo 1953 (I was given a tour of the cockpit) a Italian cruise/cargo ship back to Pakistan, going to the airport in Karachi to see the first Boeing 707 land there on its circumnavigation of the globe, then a Comet IV to London in 1970 on my way to Canada. My only regret is not flying on the Concorde.

    I still am very happy when I have an airline ticket and passport in my jacket pocket.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do wonder, though, about the “golden age.” Was there really one? As long as I’ve been flying, there’ve been problems. I remember flights in the 1980s and 1990s and, wow, what chaos.

      My first flight was in 1974 with my grandparents – the Pan Am shuttle between LaGuardia and a Washington D.C. airport (I don’t remember which). I kept that ticket stub – it was a small, square piece of paper – for years. I’m furious now because I don’t know what has become of it.

      Now, though, if we think about it, though, especially with the entertainment systems (remember when everyone had to watch the same film?), and the better, more comfortable planes (the Boeing Dreamliner is a comfortable plane for Economy flying; it’s not nearly as “airless” in the cabin as other planes) we aren’t doing too badly overall.

      Losing Concorde was a terrible shame. I too would’ve loved a shot at flying on that. C’est la vie.

      I think what’s really hurt air travel’s “romance” is the need for the security on steroids. I think that stresses and tires everyone out before they even get near the plane. I know, myself, once I get through Security (and put the belt back on, the shoes back on, the iPad and Surface back into the rucksack, and put all my “metal” on again – my watch, especially – and find my wallet), I “relax” more.

      But we do complain. Heaven knows, we complain about everything! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • But then, I’m a lot older than you, Robert 🙂 or maybe it’s just nostalgia, but it was a simpler, better world then for a child in the 50’s.

        I read Ken Follett’s Night Over Water. It’s a thriller about the last Pan Am Clipper flying out of England back to America as Hitler invades Poland. Regular passenger trans-Atlantic flights had just been started but stopped at the onset of war. Flying was a lot more expensive then.

        To me, the golden age of aviation was after World War II. Flying became more affordable, but not cheap. What with oxygen deprivation and narrow seats nowadays, no wonder passengers get drunk and throw things.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ah, going back even further – to pre-war and the prop Clippers!

          Not you, I mean the flying. 🙂

          I guess if we are thinking the “golden age” for jets, it was probably about a decade, from the mid-50s, until the mid-60s, I would guess.

          The “Pan Am”, “BOAC” era, so to speak.


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