How many of us as frequent travelers have heard the phrase “If we can have two minutes of your attention please”? The reason for this phrase is that a flight attendant who is trained to risk their life on a daily basis needs to go through a few safety and security instructions for your benefit. Now I can almost go through these instructions from memory and have admittedly browsed a magazine instead of paying attention. That was then, this is now.
I have been extremely busy this year showcasing SAP’s mobile solutions to several customers. As of March 3rd I have visited 13 different states and a few of them more than once. I had been asked to go train some of SAP’s partners on the Syclo Mobile Solutions that we offer. The class was being held in Miami on February 26th and 27th. I would be arriving on the afternoon of February 25th and leave late on the 27th. Then a customer demo came in that required me to stay in Miami till Thursday night. So I think I am all set with travel, but now instead of a Miami to Charlotte, then Philadelphia route home on Thursday I am asked to go to a demo in Columbus, OH. I have my travel changed and end up on same flight to Charlotte and then on to Columbus. I bet you can guess what happens next. I am called and then get an email, demo in Columbus cancelled. Now back to Philly. After a successful customer demo of our mobile platform I arrive in the Miami airport for US Airways flight 1220 departing at 7:05 PM.
I am in seat 10 C, an aisle seat. I am not bumped to first class, I am not able to lean back since I am in front of an exit row, and I am not concerned since I am happy to be going home. There is a group of people around me going home from a corporate event, lots of the co-workers are in our rows and a few like me feel as if we have crashed their party. I have a seatmate in the window, but the middle is left open. Fine with me since I have been fighting a head cold and the more I can stretch out and twist around as my sinuses act up, the better. We are sitting in an older Boeing 737 and I note how much smaller the overhead compartments are and the seat arrangement being a little tighter. I find it amusing that it’s February 28th but the new March issue of US Airways magazine is already available. I read one or two articles a trip when I can’t use my electronics. The opening from the Chairman is about how they are upgrading their fleet and a new Airbus 321 will probably replace equipment like the 737 I am on. The flight attendants go through their routine “If we can have two minutes of your attention while going through some safety and security information”. We take off and I feel my ears pop a little but not too bad. We pass 10,000 feet and I get out my iPad. I turn on a TV show but don’t have it on too loud since my ears heart a bit. Then after about 7 or 8 minutes I notice my ears pop again. It’s dark in the cabin while flying, most people have their overhead lights off. We can see the cities of Florida out the window in the dark, but not really sure of the orientation of the plane from my aisle seat I just tuck this observation away.
Seat map courtesy of http://www.seatguru.com/airlines/US_Airways/US_Airways_Boeing_737-400.php
A few seconds later I hear the pilot’s voice on the intercom. He is loud, calm, and professional. FLIGHT ATTENDANTS. TAKE YOUR SEATS AND PUT ON YOUR OXYGEN MASKS!
I will go into more detail about my state of mind during, after and moving forward, but I did want to call out that the sentence above is burned into my psyche. I am not overly emotional for the most part, but I will tell you that the overwhelming amount of things that can enter your mind when you have heard that sentence can pour over you at varying speeds when reflecting. That sentence was the last thing we heard for about 6 or 7 minutes, nothing about putting away electronic devices, nothing about tray tables, nothing but our thoughts and each other. I can’t tell you how the 100+ people on board behaved, especially those behind me, so I will recount what happened from row 12. People were a bit confused. A few people behind me and in my row were trying to pry the ceiling open to get there mask. They were pressing a non-existent button in hopes of the mask falling down. I am a frequent traveler and also someone who has had to act to protect other people when they were in danger, but that’s another BLOG. When I recall the safety instructions I always hear that the mask will drop automatically in the case of pressure loss in the cabin. So I turn to those around me and calmly and simply say, “You don’t need a mask yet, they will come down if we need them”. People then start repeating, what did the pilot say, and we all agree on the message we heard. This is confirmed for those of us in an aisle seat who can later see the First Class flight attendant with his mask on and a portable canister in his arms. Not a comfortable looking sight.
After a few more seconds we can feel the controlled pitch of the plane as it seems to corkscrew down in a series of turns to lower altitude. Remember, we are still in the dark, but we can see each other. We are looking at the horizon. I am thinking everything at once on the inside, but showing nothing on the outside. I didn’t realize just how important this would be until I looked at the lady in aisle seat 9D. She has her hands braced on the seat in front of her, almost as if she expects to crash. I lean up, tap her on the arm. Here is our dialogue:
Me: “Are you okay?”
9D: “Do you know what’s going on?”
Me: “We are landing sooner than expected.”
9D: “What happened?”
Me: “It would be wrong of me to guess. I can assume something with the cabin pressure, but it could really be anything.”
9D: “How are you so calm, have you done this before?”
Me: “No, I just travel a lot. Also, I only worry about what I can control. I don’t have my hands on the stick so I am not responsible for what’s going on.”
We travel a few more minutes, a little bit of small talk in the cabin. Here is what is going through my head:
- Is anyone calling or texting their loved ones, should I? No that would just be mean to my wife at this point. If it was really bad the “assume crash positions” message would have been stated.
- Is the plane flying straight, are we tilting up more than usual. Could it be an engine, a rudder?
- Where are we, I don’t see ocean, so we must me be near another city.
- What would I really say to everyone I love if I did call them? I make a point to say I love you to my wife and kids on every call, for reasons just like this night.
It’s been another 3 minutes since I chatted with 9D, she looks back at me with a pretty concerned face.
Me: “What are you thinking?”
9D: “What are you thinking!?!”
Me: “I was thinking that I forgot to call the place where I park my car to tell them I wasn’t going to Columbus tomorrow so I would be arriving tonight early. I hope it’s not an issue.”
9D: “Thank you.”
So now there is an announcement. “This is the pilot or (co-pilot), just want to let you know everything is under control. Make sure you understand that everything is under control. We should be landing here in the next 12 minutes. At this time I would like to ask the flight attendants to please set up and prepare the cabin for arrival. Once again about 10-12 minutes we’ll have you in Orlando. We’re diverting everything should be under normal circumstances now.”
A lot of chatter breaks out now. Most people are chatting about their alternate arrangements now. Some say they will rent a car; others will be calling friends in the area. I ponder when to call home. I decide to wait until I am off the plane in case calling/texting is going to turn into a bigger conversation than I want to have when taxiing on the runway. We land in Orlando without issue. People all over the plan break out into applause. I don’t. Until we are parked at the gate I am not considering this equipment stable.
Photo from www.fliightaware.com
When we get to the gate we all plan on getting our bags and getting off, sure enough a gate supervisor comes on board and makes an announcement. “They’ve just got to check out this aircraft. It’s gonna take a little bit of time. Bring of your carry-on bags. Stay in gate 57 area for announcements. We may have another aircraft we can use if we don’t stay on this one.” I hear people around me say they are not getting back on this plane. I tend to agree with them, especially since I will miss my connection. When leaving I see the pilot, thank him for getting us down and ask “so was that announcement about a diversion all we are getting?” He says “We lost cabin pressure and needed to land ASAP.” I text my wife saying that all is fine, emergency landing, I’m not ready to talk. I would let her know more once I had info. I apologize for telling our son I would be home first thing AM, he gets moody when I mislead him.
We are greeted by gate agents, not many since there are not flights heading out anymore. They are just there usually to meet planes and then they go home. In this case a supervisor and the gate team get on the intercom and over-communicated. They explain that it would be very odd to get out of there on the same plane if they find the problem due to timing tonight. We are given toll free numbers to call for re-booking and then are asked to get in line for hotel vouchers. I am close enough to the counter to hear a few things of note, especially the last ones:
- Charlotte area where we were going is sold out of hotels due to basketball game.
- Charlotte flights tomorrow are full.
- They asked to get anyone with families or special needs to the counter quickly so they could get them processed quickly.
- An older gentleman wearing a heart monitor comes up and says “we lost cabin pressure right, because I passed out a few times”.
- The supervisor confirms a loss of cabin pressure just like the pilot told me.
So I grab a taxi, get to my Fairfield Inn by Marriott, and continue a few texts to my wife. I’m one of those people who takes a deep breath about 3 minutes after some idiot cuts him off on the road. During the immediate time of a near miss the adrenaline takes over. In this case I had a few deep breathes in the taxi and forced the thoughts of what could have been out of my head. I call my family after I get settled. I explain all is fine. I recount the story above to my wife, and it’s harder than I expect to tell her about 9D. When you see someone in real fear and you have no power to really calm them down it is powerful. I did my best for 9D, and in a way she did the same for me. She gave me something to focus on, like a task to be completed in a process we just happened to be going through. I don’t have a fear of public speaking, in fact I present to small and large groups with the same anticipation and excitement, but not really fear or nervousness. Maybe my job at SAP has helped prepare me in ways I didn’t expect. Maybe I am not that unique and a lot of other people on the plane were helping each other.
Here are a couple of articles about the diverted flight I found from a search on the internet. Not much out there since all ended well, thank G-d.
I leave you with a few thoughts. Always live life and do what makes you happy without hurting others or yourself. Tell your loved ones you love them when you travel and do the same for them when they travel. Only worry about what you can control. US Airways staff did a great job. See you on the road…
p.s. I have taken two flights since this diverted landing. The next day our pilot stopped outside the gate and said he had to check something “up there in the cockpit” before moving on. All was fine. Then my next flight had to wait for maintenance. A seat in the 11th row had some wires down and the panel was repaired so we could leave. Such is life.