Flying in and out of the Salt Lake City Airport is a magnificent sight. The snow capped mountain tops reach up to touch the sky. When taking off, you can almost hear the airplane engines saying “I think I can, I think I can” as the airplane pulls up to fly over the mountain. With this knowledge, flying into Salt Lake City on a stormy night with no visibility can be very scary.
On a recent flight, our pilot announced we were ready to make our approach into Salt Lake City asking the flight attendants to prepare the cabin. All the passengers performed the usual routine: seat backs up, tray tables put away, etc. But instead of landing soon after, we kept flying and flying and flying. The blowing precipitation and cloud cover left us unable to see anything outside the window. I have flown enough to know that we should have landed and my wild imagination started to get the best of me. I imagined a panicked scene on the flight deck I was certain they must have lost their radar instruments. Perhaps all of their radio equipment was out as well.
My husband Don was sleeping peacefully, and I clung to his hand. Should I wake him up and share my concern or let him sleep? When we crashed into the mountainside (as I was certain we were going to) he would never know what had happened. I wondered if it was to late to send my friends and children emails telling them goodbye. “Who were the patron saints of airplanes?” I thought as I was quietly praying. Would someone later write about us saying “It happened so fast” and “the explosion when they hit the mountain was so intense no one on the plane felt any pain” and how do they even know what someone feels before they die?
At that moment my husband woke up, probably wondering why the circulation to his hand had been cut off. I whispered my concerns to him told him to look out the window at the icy crystals flying by the plane. He briefly looked out the window, smiled, and told me he was sure everything was ok, then fell back to sleep.
In the front row the flight attendant was playing peekaboo with a baby sitting with its parents. Everything seemed okay around me. Then the pilot came on the overhead in that calming voice that must be a part of pilot training: “This is your captain speaking, I am sure some of you have noticed that our descent has taken longer then usual, the plane in front of us was coming in pretty slow and we got a little close so we were asked to pull back and circle around.”
Holy moley! Our pilot was tailgating another plane!?!? Does he get a in flight ticket for that? Are there sky police that pulled him over at 20,000 feet and asked for his license and registration? How far back did we have to go to circle around? Was this like grade school? If you misbehave do you have to go to the end of the line?
He assured us we would be on the ground in 5-8 minutes but it seemed like another eternity as we flew blindly in the storm. Moments later a flight attendant came running up to the front on the plane, looking for garbage bags and napkins. It seems a passenger in the back was throwing up, so I was not the only person silently panicking during what I thought were my last moments on earth.
Finally, as though the plane exhaled a great sigh of relief, our landing gear deployed. A short time later we felt that wonderful startling jolt as our wheels met the rapidly rising earth. The passengers and crew began clapping and cheering. Amidst the celebration of high fives and cheers, the pilot came back on the overhead welcoming us to Salt Lake City. As the local time was announced, there was a brief silence followed by panicking groans, profanity, and sudden rush of my fellow flyers –including my husband– who bolted upright out of a sound sleep, as they all realized many of us had missed or were on the verge of missing our connections. No time to question the pilot about what “really” happened up there, we had a plane to catch.
Naturally, as always with Murphy’s law, our connecting gate was on the other side of the airport. No need to feel guilty about not working out in the morning, we were about to make up for that as we ran to our gate only to find the doors closed. However, the plane was still at the gate. Don banged on the door to try to gain the attention of the gate agent. He went to the window and attempted to use the light on his cell phone to signal the pilots and ground crew. The jet bridge was still attached! Certainly it was not too late for us.
Within moments, more people started to arrive. They were all equally out of breath and became horrified to see the door closed. When the gate agent opened the door she was suddenly surrounded by the angry mob of travelers demanding she open the door. All of their demands fell on deaf ears as she told us once that door is closed it can never again be opened, I had to wonder if there was some sort of one way super glue on the door.
And then it happened. The jet bridge began pulling away. You would have thought it was the last chopper out of Saigon. One man was yelling profanities, a woman fell to her knees with her suitcase and screamed “make it come back!” Another couple was holding on to one another as the woman wept quietly. With the drama developing, I looked around expecting to see a passenger carrying an ice chest filled with transplant organs.
For a moment there was quiet at the gate as we all watched our plane taxi down the runway without us. At that moment everyone’s attention turned to the poor gate agent who probably should have run while she could. The angry man was asking for a supervisor and a random couple asked for an FAA official.I stood there thinking it was odd that so many people were going from Portland, Oregon to San Antonio, Texas on a Thursday night.
Don stepped away from the crowd and quietly called Delta, he has the kind of status that allows him to make a call and they answer already knowing his name. In the meantime, the rest of the angry crowd was making demands. Another agent came over trying to help keep the disgruntled crowd from inciting a riot. I laughed quietly as one person demanded they get a plane to fly the 12 of us home. Knowing their demands would never be met, I started whispering more realistic requests in some of the calmer passengers ears. “This was the last flight of the night, ask for a hotel room, meal vouchers, travel vouchers and flight upgrades if possible.” With these new more realistic requests now being made, the gate agents were able to deal with the passengers instead of wondering if the national guard was going to be called.
30 minutes later the passengers had calmed down, and a few had formed new friendships, making plans to meet at the bar of the 5 star hotel they were being put up in. Many were on the flight together the following day and had asked for seats together. Equipped with their vouchers and complimentary Delta travel packs, they all walked away together. We were lucky and had no place to be, so we used the delay as an excuse to see beautiful downtown Salt Lake City.
No airline is perfect and as long as there are flights there will be delays, missed flights, and nights you spend in cities that you had not anticipated. Staying calm, being nice to the gate agents, and asking for realistic things will get you a lot further then causing drama, screaming, and attacking a person who is trying to do their job. If you miss a flight due to airline, mechanical, or, in our case, pilot error, the airline will usually put you up at their expense, offer you meal vouchers, and will assist you in getting home as quickly as possible.
Sadly, our luggage did not make it off the plane, so I learned the lesson to always travel with a change of clothes and makeup (my very shallow, biggest, concern) the hard way. But I also learned if you are not in a hurry to get home, take the time to explore the city you are in. After all, as far as my wild imagination was concerned, I had just escaped a near-death experience the night before, so I should enjoy life’s adventures while I still had the ground beneath my feet.