My worst flight ever

by James Wysong on July 31, 2007

Trips from hell — everyone has a horror story about a bad flight on an airplane. I’ve been a flight attendant for 18 years and I’ve had some really bad flights, believe me — everything from truly terrifying weather to sickness and deaths on board. But one flight stands out in my memory for sheer misery. Here it is.

We arrived at the gate about 5 p.m. for our 11-hour flight back to the United States, only to discover that we had a half-hour mechanical delay. The other flight attendants and I immediately became suspicious, because in the world of air travel, the words “half hour” and “delay” seldom occur in the same sentence. Still, we were asked to board the airplane and perform our preflight checks. We would be told later when passenger boarding would commence. Exactly half an hour later, the passengers were boarded, so we thought some miracle had occurred and the problem was fixed.

Wrong.

In fact, every half hour thereafter, an announcement was made stating that it would be yet another half hour before the problem was fixed. This went on for three hours, until our work rules kicked in. Flight attendants’ contracts specify how many hours they are allowed to work on board an aircraft. This shift limitation prevents aircrews from being flown until they are so tired they could not possibly evacuate an aircraft safely. Given that we had an 11-hour flight in front of us, we were coming up fast on our deadline to leave the gate.

Two minutes before we became illegal, the ground staff closed the doors and the plane pushed back. Yes, we were tired, but we were also happy. It seemed we were about to be on our way.

Wrong again.

The ground staff had removed the Jetway to prevent the crew from walking back into the terminal; meanwhile, the mechanics continued to work on the plane. An hour later the problem still wasn’t fixed. The only thing the mechanics succeeded in doing was breaking the plane’s air conditioning system. Three hundred people started to sweat. Tempers began to flare.

While we were waiting, one passenger suddenly had an epileptic seizure. The passenger needed further medical attention and needed to be taken off the plane, so we had to be pushed back to the gate, which took 45 minutes. Back at the gate, the passenger was safely offloaded, and the flight crew, which had long since become illegal to fly, demanded to get off the plane. The gate agent replied that this was impossible — there was no replacement crew, no vacant hotels in the city and, besides, the mechanics had fixed the problem.

“Oh, no they haven’t!” a voice shouted out from the cockpit.

“Out of the way, we know our contractual rights!” yelled two senior flight attendants as they stormed off the plane.

Furious, the gate agent got on the microphone and made the following announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen: Thanks to your flight attendants, this flight has to be canceled until tomorrow. At this time, we are unsure of any vacant hotels due to the conventions taking place, so bring your pillows and blankets off the plane with you and prepare for the worst.” (The gate agent has since been fired.)

As the passengers deplaned, they hurled endless verbal abuse, threatened and shoved; one elderly passenger even spat in a crew member’s face. The airport security manager greeted the flight crew and informed us that a small riot was occurring in the departure lounge. We would have to be smuggled out of the airport the back way, with a police escort.

We got to a hotel (which had plenty of rooms) at 1:30 a.m. When I went to the soda machine, I got several dirty sneers from some of the passengers, who had been put up at the same hotel. Departure was supposed to be at 12:30 p.m. the next day, but the mechanical problems still were not fixed, so the flight was delayed again until 5 p.m., 24 hours after we had reported for work.

The passengers boarded around 5:30 p.m. They were not at all happy, but just wanted to get going. As the plane pushed back and rolled along the runway, we said our belated farewells to the airport. Or so we thought.

In fact, when we got to the end of the runway, the captain made an announcement informing us that we would be returning to the gate because of a warning indicator light concerning the left engine. Three hundred passengers growled in their seats. Some cried. Others yelled. Two hours later, we finally took off, praying for an uneventful flight, which somehow we knew was unlikely.

Halfway through the meal service, we discovered that 60 percent of the entree dishes were empty. We could only hand out the trays, which consisted of a salad, a roll and a melted dessert. We gave away all the crew meals, but were still short. Two hours after that, the audio system malfunctioned, so nobody could hear the movie or the music. We then discovered that none of the toilets in the economy section would flush, so everyone had to use the four lavatories in first class and business class. A line formed on each side of the plane, starting in first class and stretching to the middle of economy, blocking the aisles.

The stench of the backed-up sewage was nothing compared to the insults that were being thrown at us. At one point, I couldn’t take it any longer, so I hid in one of the broken toilets, just to get away from the abuse. I was a grown man hiding in a toilet from an angry mob. The stench became intolerable, so I put on my bulletproof face, emerged from the smelly cubicle and tried not to let the rude comments bother me. One of my colleagues actually quit in the middle of the flight and remained in the cockpit for the duration. In fact, she had a nervous breakdown and never flew again.

Each hour seemed like an eternity, and the passenger abuse never ceased. We reached our destination, only to join a holding pattern for two hours. Finally, the captain declared an emergency priority landing, and the airplane limped into the gate. We were desperate to put this catastrophe behind us, but lo and behold, the Jetway broke, and it took another 45 minutes for the ground crew to pull up the temporary stairs to let the angry mob go free.

All the flight attendants hid in the bathrooms so they wouldn’t have to smile and say goodbye to all the passengers as they deplaned. All but me, that is. I wasn’t fast enough, and all the toilets were taken, so I was forced to take more abuse. Everyone was furious. I mentally flinched at every comment.

“I’m never flying this crappy airline again,” many said as they stormed off the plane.

The only response I could offer was: “After this flight, I wouldn’t either.”

A little old lady was the last to get off. She smiled at me, handed me a quarter and said, “You tried your hardest, and I know it wasn’t easy. Thank you, sonny.”

I nearly burst into tears at that very moment. It was truly the worst flight of my career. When I got home, I opened a bottle of red wine and lay in a hot bath for three hours.

Now it’s your turn. If you’ve had a miserable flight and can somewhat laugh at it now, please e-mail me the agonizing details. In fact, let’s make it a contest. Prizes will go to the best stories of air travel misery received by August 15.

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