Normally a flight would only get a passing anecdote – I slept, I read, I ate my peanuts- but this was not a normal flight. Actually, by the time I finally landed at San Francisco International I was just about ready to turn to the ticket agent and demand she find me a way back home right that very minute. I’ve flown quite a bit, mostly short jaunts here and there, and I’ve only had one “close call” when an engine went out on a puddle jumper I’d taken from Longview, Texas. I have been delayed hundreds of times, been stuck in holding patterns over airports for ages, and had a few of those flights were idiots put the plane in lockdown just by being assholes. This flight, or flights I should say? Whole different creatures.
Little Rock, Arkansas
Dark and freezing cold, I had to leave for the airport at 3am. Tired and grumpy, coming into the airport I noticed there was a hell of a lot more traffic than normal especially for such an early hour. The nice man at Southwest curb checkin was kind enough to let me stand behind the desk where the heaters were going so I wouldn’t turn into a popsicle.
Thankfully I already had my boarding passes and had expected to just go straight to the security checkpoint. Little Rock isn’t a hotbed of travel and usually you are in and out of security in about five minutes. For anyone who doesn’t know the layout of the airport, it’s two floors with baggage and airline desks on the bottom and just at the top of the stairs is the security point. There is never a line more than 15 deep. I once got behind a old people tour group and still it only took me mere minutes to get through. I stepped into the terminal and the line stretched all the way down the stairs and into baggage claim. The man in front of me remarked “I didn’t know this many people even LIVED in this state” which, truthfully, was a pretty valid assessment. Time continued to click away, we continued to move at a snail’s pace. The man in front of me and the family with the bratty kids behind me (in their defense, their mom had them up at this insane hour and had not fed them…nor would she have time to before the flight as it turned out) were all headed for the same flight. When we finally made it through, there wasn’t even time to put shoes back on and everyone made a mad dash for the plane. Panting hard we all eventually made it and, by some miracle, I was able to score a window seat. Then we sat. And sat. The plan had to be de-iced twice before we left the gate and then another time as we sat on the runway awaiting our time to takeoff.
My plane out of Little Rock was scheduled to stop in Phoenix and then go on to Oakland but because everyone else was flying into SFO, I chose to take a layover in Phoenix and catch a later flight that went directly to San Francisco. So, having nothing to do and unable to figure out the time zone mess at the airport (they are in a different time zone but, to add confusion, don’t participate in Daylight Savings so my head was totally befuddled) I sank down near the gate and figured whenever they called our flight is when I’d pay attention. No big deal. I wrote, I fought with the crappy internet, I took in the stunning airport view.
The area where I was stuck had floor to ceiling glass windows that looked straight out onto the mountain ranges. It was stunning and distracting…which explains really why I wasn’t paying much of attention to the little man running late for his flight. Until he headed toward a giant black door (seriously? It’s all black and has emergency access assistance emblazoned in red in like three feet tall letters!) instead of the door right beside it that led to his gate. Chaos ensued. Lights were flashing, alarms sounded, giant gates fell from the ceiling to block off terminal areas and black clad officers, a mix of TSA, sheriffs and no idea what else, descended upon us. While the guy was ushered onto his flight by the gate attendant, the rest of us were thrown into this action movie type of scene with utter bedlam with no one having a clue what was going on. Kids crying, parents screaming, officials blaring out orders. I have to admit, I wasn’t the most helpful of travelers at this point. My butt stayed firmly planted next to the window and just kind of observed the madness. At some time during this our delayed plane had finally arrived and once things settled to some degree of organized chaos, I made my way to the gate (purposefully ignoring the officials who were demanding we all line up for ID checks), strode onto the plane after handing my pass to the gate man, and promptly went to sleep against the window.
San Francisco, California….or not
Since it is holiday time, there were tons of kids on my flight and sleep lasted only until pressure changes sent the children into pain induced screaming fits. It calmed down after we reached cruising but I still couldn’t sleep so I started playing with books on my new Kindle Fire. I was pretty ensconced in my story by the time we got the announcement about being on our final descent into SFO. It was the standard spill: you have a choice to fly, we appreciate you choosing us, here’s the local weather.
And then….we didn’t land. In sight of the runway even and no landing. The crew came on and said, they didn’t have a clue what was going on (I love Southwest’s honesty…it’s nice to know the are in it with us) and some time later the very irritated pilot informed us that the airport was only allowing instrument landings which, frankly, he thought was stupid because as anyone could see there were clouds high up but the runway was clear. He came on later for an update and added a very pissed off (he was so passed the point of irritated) “We’ve got no idea what the hell is going on down there.” So we circled more. And more. And then we changed direction and started circling over the bay/ocean whatever. Nothing but miles and miles of blue water below us. It’s at this point he decides to let us in on a secret: we are out of fuel.
He spouted off plane weight numbers and how much they had fueled up with in Phoenix but really, the only thing any of us heard was “We don’t have enough fuel to enter another holding pattern and ATC has ordered us to enter another one.” At this point, all of us were starting to fidget and you knew we all were thinking the same thing: why the HELL didn’t we pay attention to how you get the blow up life preserver thingie unattached from your seat cushion. He explained about how the reserves had been used and we didn’t have enough for another approach. The plane got really, really quiet. One single crying baby like a bad disaster movie echoed from somewhere way way in the back. Granted, the pilot was busy trying to save us but at the time, all we could think was why isn’t he telling us SOMETHING?
Without any forewarning, the flight crew was ordered to its seats. We changed direction and it felt like we dropped straight down (controlled, not like drop out of the sky terror) and then we hit pavement, nice and smooth. A second or two later, a crew member comes on the intercom. “Obviously, we aren’t in San Francisco. No, we have no idea why we are here either. When we know something, we’ll tell you. In the meantime, on behalf of your flight crew, welcome to Oakland.”
The runway was a litter of emergency crews. They lined both sides of the runway. As we passed them, they cut in line behind us and followed us toward the gate. By the time we reached the terminal area, we were like a little parade: one hobbling Southwest plane followed by two dozen fire trucks, ambulances, escort vehicles and whatever else was in the group. More than anything that had been said, more than the silence or even landing at a different airport – it was the sight of all these vehicles that brought the reality home. They knew how dangerously close we had been to a crash, whether we had fathomed it or not. Sobering and, when all you can think of is your kids sitting at home and never getting to see them again because someone decided not to top off the damn gas tank, it’s freaking terrifying.
Now that we were safely on dry land, people sort of went into anger mode. People wanted off the plane, there was a line of them in the aisle trying to escape. The crew kept telling them they’d have to wait – they didn’t know if we were going to take a shuttle over to SFO or hop a ride over the bay. I decided this was way too stressful for me, thanked God again for my window seat, and opened my Kindle back up to tune out the whole planet. The crew agreed to let two people off – ones that had not checked bags – and fury ensued. The rest of the people wanted off as well. The pilot came on and explained they were not about to unpack all the luggage to find theirs so if they wanted off fine, they could get off, but they’d have to find their own way to San Fran to pick up their baggage. Oddly enough (or perhaps they were even more terrified than I was) they choose to get off the plane. About 37 people lighter, the pilot let us know the scoop. We were being refueled and planned to do a quick 5 minute jump across the bay to SFO.
He explained we would take off, take a hard, hard left and land over at SFO. If we went up and took a right then SFO was putting us in another holding pattern. He said they were just getting enough fuel to get over and then we’d be on our way. Which, of course, someone pipes up and speaks for all of us and tells the crew: “Really, take your time. Fuel as much as you like. Actually, add MORE this time even. We’ll happily wait.”
After listening to the FAA spill about safety (which people paid much closer attention to this time around) we finally got back up in the air and, not surprising, we turned right. I think I could even hear the pilot cursing behind his steel doors. They told us something about having Oakland ATC contact SFO ATC privately so hopefully that would solve the issue. And it did. We did one large circle and then started our descent, hoping this time it would be to the right airport.
San Francisco, California…for real this time
“Welcome to San Francisco. For real this time.”
Cheers and claps and some more ending pleasantries and apologies from the flight crew. But honestly, even though I’ve been to both Oakland and SFO enough times to recognize the different airports, until I actually saw the signs on the windows, I wasn’t going to believe it. Finally (and physically safe and sound even if an emotional wreck) I had made it.
(Note: I was not a happy traveler. The photos in this entry are a combination of stock photography and those taken by fellow travelers on the same flights).