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.
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):
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! 🙂