"Dear Mr. Conlin,
We would like to apologize to you for any inconvenience you may have encountered when your flight on January 28th made an emergency landing in Detroit..."
So started the email from my preferred airline late last week.
I pride myself on being a bit of a "Travel Warrior"; one who knows his way around the travel "battlefield" if you will. I like to think I anticipate problems in my travel journeys and head them off well in advance of the rest of the pack. I check flight schedules (more than once), weather, and traffic...all in the name of making my travel day less stressful and more efficient. It rarely works but I continue this ritual on both departing and returning trips thinking this will increase my control over the situation. The past two weeks have proven that to simply be an illusion. Oh yes, and I have figured out too that while I may think I am a travel warrior, I am really just a travel worrier.
As I drove to the Philadelphia airport last Monday it was snowing and ice was predicted. I knew this and left early. Neither were much of a problem and I arrived very early for my flight. This did not bother me as I know that Monday morning security lines can be horrifically long. I was one of four people in line. I arrived at the gate and noticed the plane had not. This was it. I would be delayed. With snow and ice and no plane...I was going to be late for my meeting. I alerted my co-workers in Michigan and got ready for a long day.
I thought back to the week prior in Chicago when I had bragged to my boss that I had figured out how to beat the Madness at O'Hare airport. "Don't fly there". I chose Midway, O'Hare's smaller cousin. This had worked well on the trip out but on the trip back my flight to Detroit (connections are a bad idea) was cancelled which meant I rented another car and raced four hours to Detroit to make the connection. I chose to go the "southern route" through Indiana to avoid lake effect snow in Michigan (I had checked the weather). I made it and patted myself on the back for my heroic actions. I also lamented the fact that I had just lost "a segment". A segment is simply a flight. You need 100 of these to get Super Elite on my airline or you need 75,000 miles but I don't fly overseas and this is not a "west coast" year for contracts... so I need segments. This was a setback. My boss who had flown through O'Hare made his connection and was home without a hitch.
Just as I was getting upset again about losing the segment, my name was called. This usually means that you have been upgraded to First Class (or that the TSA wants to see you). This is why you want segments. The more segments, the better the status, the better the status, the more chance of a upgrade and even on an hour flight, First Class trumps coach every time. It's the difference between leather and cloth seats, between filet mignon and a hamburger, between "The Office" with Steve Carell and "The Office" without him. Everything is better in First Class...and I was in it! And the plane had arrived! So we boarded (Excuse me folks they called First Class so I need to get by you), de-iced (it was snowing but this was not a surprise since I had checked the weather) and we left. I settled back and relaxed. The weather in Detroit was improving and the most difficult part of the trip (just getting to the plane) was over.
About 45 minutes in, the pilot announced that we had been put in a holding pattern because of fog but that they were just slowing planes down. "Not a big problem". Five minutes later a flight attendant came rushing by and headed to the back of the plane. I barely noticed. One minute later she rushed back and grabbed the phone. "Yes Captain, I said smoke". I noticed. She was gone again towards the back. The guy in front of me asked the guy next to him "Did she say smoke??" Removing his headphones he said "I don't think it's allowed..." The inquirer looked back at my ashen face which was now starting to bead sweat and looked away as he muttered an expletive.
The flight attendant was back and we were making a hard right hand turn and descending. She sat, announced we were cleared for landing and began to appear to try to make herself hyperventilate. She was breathing in and exhaling worse than my wife did during three labors. She was nervous and now so was the entire plane. It was quiet except for her answering the phone "Maggie! Yes I still see it! It's getting worse". Truthfully, she did not need the phone for this conversation...they could hear her all the way in the back. She was beyond concerned and now so was I. About the time I thought I might ask for a few of their largest bottles of water we landed. Fast. Then we stopped. Fast. And then we sat there...fire trucks had met the plane and we sat there. I am no expert in fire suppression and evacuation but not clearing a plane full of people when it might be on fire seems...well...like a problem. The pilot explained the situation (which we all already knew about thanks to the "secret" phone calls and...the SMOKE) and explained the firemen "Could not see any problems" (could it be the fire was inside the plane??) but they were going to follow us in. They did, we exited, firefighters boarded and three days later I got the email...and 7500 "apology miles" (my term not theirs). They will get me a quarter of a flight. I might ask for segments instead.
In the meantime I go back to Detroit on Feb. 4. I plan on checking the flight status, the weather, the traffic and now I will look for the fire extinguisher when I board. I don't own a parachute...yet.