It was the first day of Spring in 2012. Looking out the window in the very early morning of March 21st I was very surprised to see a wintry scene, instead. Was I in Alaska? It was not a dream, or nightmare as I would be inclined to say after later developments in the day. I was really in Eugene and it was snowing like I had never seen in Eugene in the six years I’ve been living here. According to the national Weather Service, in 73 years of record keeping this was the most snow Eugene has ever seen in one day, this late in the season. I was just waking up and getting ready to catch the 6:00 am flight to San Francisco and connecting from there to a flight to Washington DC, which is something I do a few times during the year. Some thoughts rushed through my mind: Will I ever make it to the airport? How are the roads? Is my flight going to be okay? This is likely to be one of the most important meetings I will attend this year. Will I make it to my meeting in DC?
Flying out of a small town such as Eugene has its positives and negatives. An obvious positive is that there is no traffic to get to the airport, except if you encounter a slow moving train on a level pass. I usually call the same cab company to go to the airport, they already have my information on record, it is really easy and quick to organize it. And they’ve always been punctual in picking me up.
One negative aspect is that the Eugene airport offers limited flight schedules and destinations. With United you will fly out via San Francisco, Denver or Portland. With Alaska Air (Horizon) you will first go north connecting via Portland or Seattle. And Delta uses Salt Lake City as its main connecting hub. These three airlines are the main choices or only choices for regular daily flights to and from Eugene. There is another airline that flies a few days of the week. On the other hand, you get to know the airline staff at the check-in counters, and the security staff as well.
Weather is rarely an issue in Eugene. However, I’ve seen many flight delays due to the frequent fog situations in San Francisco. The San Francisco airport is one of our main connecting hubs, and fog usually translates into shutting down one of the two parallel runways, slowing traffic to half capacity. Regional jets bound to San Francisco, such as the ones flying out of small towns such as Eugene, are the first to be grounded and delayed, priority given to the larger jets coming over from long distances across the pacific and across the world.
However, what I describe here is an exception to the rule. These are the types of events that challenge smaller airports capacity: their lack of staff and equipment capacity to deal with out of the ordinary circumstances. Which is okay, when it is rational to plan operations based on a proper study of probabilities. If you know for the case of Eugene that snow fall as what happened on March 21st is going to be a very rare event, why would you have the equipment and staff to deal with it as a normal and frequent occurrence? It is part of what one gets for living in a small town. You cope with the challenges in a different way. And that day, Wednesday May 21st, was an exceptional weather day. In the end most of the flights left with delays, but they were not long delays considering the circumstances. The airport was able to cope with the circumstances, with some delays.
My flight was the exception, however. Some days it is your turn to “become a statistic”. A small initial delay created a snow ball, pun intended, series of related incidents and airline mishaps that led me to stay in the Eugene airport for an entire day. I’m reporting this for the historical aspect of the occasion. It is not meant as a complaint directed at any one. Although scenes of the original “Airport” movie came to mind, everyone at the airport and at the airline (United) tried their best to get us out of Eugene safely first, and as soon as possible. There were some stressful moments, some miss-communications, some fumbling of procedures, but in the end, it all worked out well for me, and I hope for all others as well. My appreciation goes to all the staff working that day for their great efforts to provide service in such challenging circumstances!
But let’s go back to the beginning. It all started the evening before. I usually call Oregon Taxi the evening before my flight to schedule a ride to the airport. This time, and for the first time ever in my experience with them, the dispatcher told me they could not guarantee a pick up. They explained that from 4:00 am to 5:00 am they already had 17 scheduled pick ups and only 10 cars were available. For the first time I would have to call another cab company. Instead, I decided to drive to the airport and leave the truck in the long term parking lot. I packed my bags and went to sleep.
As is my routine for these early morning flights, I woke up at 3:00 am and started the coffee maker. I didn’t check the Eugene weather forecast. I checked the San Francisco area weather forecast as usual, because that is where the delays happen. No fog on the San Francisco forecast, so everything would go well. With a fresh cup of coffee I turned my computer on to check emails and do final preparations for my trip. That’s when I heard a noise, something hit the side of the house. I looked outside for the first time and saw all that snow! Incredible! The umbrella had collapsed under the weight of the snow and had fallen, hitting the house on its way down, and that’s the sound I had heard. If it weren’t for that I would not have looked outside until just before getting out of the house.
That would had been a problem, because it takes me 15-20 minutes to get to the airport on a normal day. This could change drastically with all the snow on the ground. I quickly got into action and was ready to go in less than 15 minutes. Although the truck is a 4 x 4 truck, the all-wheel-drive system of the Audi Quattro is a far superior system to tackle roads with up to 10 inches of snow. So I took the Audi. The drive was great, I love driving on fresh snow, by the way. I was driving at 45-50 mph on a carpet of 6-7 inches of very fresh snow. The 16 year old Audi was going great. Once I arrived at the more traveled roads closer to the airport I had to pass other cars and trucks struggling and going really slow. Close to the airport I found one of the Oregon Taxi cabs stuck on a ditch. I’m so glad I was not relying on them this time; I can’t imagine the chaos of drivers, dispatcher and customers, since they now had one less car working and those 17 callers, some of them I’m sure did not get their cab ride on time. I hope it got all sorted out well for everyone.
During my drive to the airport I was having fun but I was also apprehensive, wondering what situation I would find at the airport. When I lived in Ohio we were used to snow and snow storms. But here in Eugene snow being the exception to the rule, I was wondering whether airport staff and airline crews would be on top of things.
But as I walked inside the airport I was pleasantly surprised to see that the operations were going on as if there was no snow on the ground, flights were boarding on time. I had great expectations for this important meeting in DC. I relaxed, switched gears, and started to enjoy the snow as a novelty thing. I talked to security staff, the lady working at the newsstand, the airline staff, asked them whether they had been warned about the weather the day before. No, no one had been warned or informed about it in specific, and the ones who claimed to have had some information, mentioned that they were not expecting this much snow. Yet, everything was going fine at the airport. Besides the Oregon Taxi incident, things were going as usual, from what I could observe. Below is a photo of the turbo prop Embraer Brasilia 120 that makes the United flights between Eugene and Portland.
My flight boards slightly late, at 5:45am, not too bad, really. Everything is looking good, although the plane will need to be de-iced and this will delay things down the road. I can barely look out from the airplane window, so much snow is covering it. The cabin door is closed at 6:07 am and we are ready to go. That’s when the first step of the ordeal takes place.
Event 1: 6:15am, the tug that pushes the plane out of the gate spins its wheels, does not have enough traction to move the plane. Ground crew shows up with shovels to clear a path on the snow. After about 30 minutes of this effort we were finally pushed out of the gate. At this point we are officially entered on the de-icing line, but the plane stays just off the gate, and not at the actual de-icing line.
Day light is coming up, and for the first time I get to see what it looks like outside. We are number 4 on the de-icing line, which means last, there were only four flights departing at that time. This small 30 minutes delay, becoming last on the de-ce line will become the incident that triggers a whole set of delays that will characterize this adventure at the Eugene airport.
Event 2: from 6:15 am to 8:30 am we experience the slow de-icing process at Eugene airport. De-icing on airports that commonly use this procedure takes about 15 minutes for a small regional jet. In Eugene, and with the conditions we were encountering, this was more like 30 minutes for each plane. And only one de-icing machine was being used. We are still just outside the gate and the pilot turns the engines off to save fuel, otherwise, he indicated, we would have to return to the gate and refuel if it takes too long for us to be de-iced.
Just when it was our turn to be de-iced the machine runs out of de-icing fluid and would take about 25 minutes to refill. During this time, we are almost 2 hours inside the plane, and have only moved a few feet from the gate. The time for which a plane is allowed to sit at the tarmac with passengers is two hours if food or water are not provided.
Airlines now face fines of up to $27,500 per passenger when a plane sits on the tarmac for more than two hours without providing food or water or more than three hours without giving passengers the option of getting off the plane. Airlines will also have to provide working bathrooms and medical attention, if needed. The rule applies to domestic flights only.
Event 3: 8:25 am, exceeding tarmac time. Just about 2 hours on the tarmac, the captain announced that we needed to go back to the gate and offer passengers the option to get off the plane. I was hoping no one would deplane. The idea was to bring the plane back to the gate, attach the ramp which would allow passengers to have the option to deplane. But I was hoping no one would be interested in doing that so we could get back out again. But once we got to the gate, a little longer than two hours after boarding, a few passengers wanted to get out of the plane.
Event 4: What does the rule say about sitting on the tarmac? The rule indicates a plane can stay more than 2 hours out if there is food and water. In theory, we could have stayed out in the tarmac. And the second problem is that the flight crew and the gate crew were confused about how to implement the rule. As some of the passengers were standing up and getting ready to deplane, the gate crew walks in the plane and informed the flight crew that all passengers would have to deplane. The flight crew did not have the same comprehension of the law. They talked briefly and then the announcement was made that everyone should deplane. Now we are talking about a minimum delay of 30 minutes for people to deplane, then scatter around the gate area, and then board again. This means I’m now officially missing my connecting flight to DC.
I used the back to the terminal time to call my travel agent. I found out that the later flights from San Francisco to DC (1pm and 4pm flights) had available seats. But my travel agent could not do anything about my reservation. It was under United airlines control at this point, since I had already checked in.
Event 5: Springbreak! During the conversation with my travel agent, he reminds me that all flights leaving Eugene were full. This was a Wednesday, and there were no seats available until Monday, next week. This puts an extra pressure on making this flight work, and in future decisions made by United.
Event 6: Chaos at the United reservations phone system. I tried calling United reservations, but it was impossible to get to talk to anyone. All you hear are the “robot” pre-recorded menu system and eventually it hangs up on you unless you trick it to get an agent to talk to you. But then, it will take a long, long time to get someone. At least I learned the short cut to get someone before going through too many loops, and before it hangs up on me. They keep changing the menus, so you need to make a few tries before tricking it for an agent. Anyway, if you have called United reservations within the last month or so you will have heard:
Thanks for calling United Airlines. We are experiencing high call volumes. If your call can wait, please try us again later…
Incidentally, I just received communication from United indicating that this is due to their last phase on the Continental / United merge. They indicated they are improving the systems and hiring new staff to operate calling centers. This reminds me of the time I was “stuck” in Honolulu due to an earthquake that closed the airport and United’s calling center was located in India. Thank goodness that is no longer the case, but I digress.
Back to Eugene, the gate staff were trying to deal with things the best way possible. But they were inevitably getting stressed out with the people inquiring about their connecting flights. I’ve seen this type of stress on airline gate and check in staff too many times. So I relied on the United app on the I-phone for updates on the status of this flight and the connecting flight.
The gate staff worked as fast as they could and soon we were re-boarding. According to the time I took the photo below, we were boarding again at 8:49 am (I took this picture just before getting to my seat).
The plane was refueled and everyone boarded quickly. But it took a while for us to get to the de-icing line, and at 9:44 we were still waiting. Now we were third on the line. Yes, we lost time and two spots on the de-icing line during the back to the terminal and re-boarding maneuver, so we became last again as two new flights were getting ready to leave Eugene. But I’m okay, as during this ordeal United had re-booked me to a later flight as I checked on the I-phone United app. Very handy application, by the way.
Event 7: We are back to the slow de-icing process in Eugene airport. We wait. At some point the captain informed us that the de-icing truck had missed a spot on the plane ahead of us and had to return for a touch up, further delaying the already slow process.
At 10:26 am we are finally in position to be de-iced. By this time it has stopped snowing, temperatures went up, it is raining, all of which helps the de-icing process as some snow has already melted.
The de-icing process went very smoothly.
The de-icing was completed, and I’m checking flight updates on the United App on my I-phone. Now United has automatically re-booked me to a 4pm flight leaving San Francisco and arriving in DC at about 10pm. Still good enough. I’m relaxed, knowing that everything will now be okay.
The captain informed us we have been authorized to take off. We taxi to the runway and once there we stop on the take off position. Instead of taking off, the plane starts moving without revving the engines too much, we go all the extension of the runway, all the way to its end at very slow, taxing, speeds. Obviously there is a problem.
Event 8: Houston, we have a problem! Engine Problems, that is. Once at the end of the runway, the plane moving very slowly, the flight attendant gets a call from the flight deck, her body expression summarizes the demeanor of the day so far. She makes the “OMG” expression, puts her hand on her face, bends down in a clear state of disbelief. By now we all know something is going wrong. A moment later the first officer informed us that when we were ready for take off a malfunction light came on indicating the right engine was not mechanically satisfactory for taking off. The plane is taxied back to the terminal.
Event 9. Flight not canceled jail. Once back at the terminal, total chaos between passengers and gate staff and flight crew. Misinformation is the name of the game. Once a flight is canceled, you can start working on alternatives. But when it is not canceled in the system, you can only set up “stand by” positions. And the only people who can do this are the people at the gate. But the gate staff said they would not work with passengers until further information is available. But they were informing us that the flight was canceled per flight crew indication. However, the United system did not recognize the flight as canceled.
Event 10. The flight duty period to expire (crew operation time). The flight crew had checked in at about 5:00am. I read into the FAA requirements, this is a very complex rule, as it involves circadian times, how much rest the crew had before they checked in for this flight (when was it that they checkout of their last flight, and how long was that previous shift), and exceptional circumstances, and other factors that are at the discretion of the captain. In any case, United staff informed us that this crew would not be able to fly this plane in the time they approximated would be needed to fix the plane, and the time the fixed plane would be expected to land in San Francisco.
But remember, it is Springbreak and all flights were booked from Wednesday all the way to next Monday. So we either flew in this plane or we should forget about leaving Eugene. My travel agent mentioned cancelling my trip to DC as the only viable alternative at this point. People were asking for answers that were not given. The standard answer was: The supervisor is trying to get information on what needs to be done.
By now, all passengers started to talk to each other. There were the three teachers going to Beijing for an exchange program. The couple going to Tel Aviv. Another couple going to Ireland. A family going to Maui. And rumors started to appear. One was of another plane coming from either Boise or Salt Lake City, depending on who told you the story. But no information was divulged to passengers. What a mess!
Event 11. 2:00pm, finally some official news! An announcement of a new flight Eugene – San Francisco was created. The official story was that a plane was going to come from Salt Lake City. Everyone was invited to come downstairs for the re-booking on this new flight. Meanwhile, I had been able to connect with the United reservations system, after about 30 minutes of wait time. Instead of waiting on the check in line, I was able to re-book my flight and my connection from San Francisco to DC via telephone. The agent was extremely helpful, she tried everything, and settled on a flight that would go Eugene to Portland, then Toronto and from there to DC. Before she would close this deal, the new Eugene – San Francisco flight was entered on the system. So she was able to book me on this new flight, and from there the red-eye flight from San Francisco arriving in DC at 6:59 am. On this red-eye flight my seat was a middle seat, on the back of the plane…
So at 3:00 pm I got my new boarding passes and I finally had a chance to sit down to eat something. I went to the restaurant, had a nice meal, turned my computer on and found some time to work.
At 4:30 pm I was back at the gate. The flight was scheduled to depart at 5:30pm. By this time, the snow had melted on the tarmac.
On my way back to the gate I find this other de-icing truck. It is smaller, but I wonder if it could had been put to use.
Event 12. The plane from Salt Lake city arrives and misinformation continues. The gate crew informs us that it is the new plane we will be taking. However, it is a smaller plane. The reality is that our plane had been fixed, according to revised information, and the only thing we really needed was a new flight crew. The new crew came on this flight from Salt Lake City.
Event 13. All along, the process for booking and re-booking flights was very slow. That happened because just a few weeks back, another consolidation on the United / Continental merger included their reservations database system. What I heard from staff is that the “new” system is Continental’s system, which was designed in the 1970’s. Remember the old DOS-based Word Perfect writing editor of the time before Windows? Yes, the new United system requires commands similar to Word Perfect 5.1 or even the DOS system. So all staff had their own hand written cheat sheets for commands. When you re-book flights, you need to know all the tricks of the system to make things happen smoothly. Continental staff were training United staff on how to use this dinosaur, while all of this was going on.
However, again, I want to thank everyone for their effort. The gate crew that took over from the one in the morning is much more relaxed. They were not there when hell broke loose, so they take things calmly. Eventually everything works well. The middle person from the three on the picture above is a Continental staff, training the United staff on the “new” system.
Event 14. 5:30 pm, we board our plane, the same plane where everything started this morning. It was reported to us that a mechanic was flown from Portland and had fixed the plane. The new crew was all set. We board the plane at 5:30 pm.
Event 15. At 6:01 pm we are de-iced once again. By this time, there is mostly water on the plane’s wings. The process goes smoothly this time.
And a little bit more than 12 hours of delay and we are finally ready for taking off.
But this time it works. Good bye Eugene airport.
We arrived in San Francisco and when I got to the United Customer service I see the same faces from my Eugene flight. People needed hotels and other necessities. All I wanted was a better seat, something that would not make my life so miserable on the 5 hours flight from San Francisco to Washington.
Eventually I got a better seat. Still a middle seat, but this time it was in the Economy Plus towards the front of the plane. And I slept rather well, considering the situation. I had called the hotel to guarantee that I had a room to check in when I arrived in the morning. I would need a shower before going to my meeting.
Event 16. My flight arrived in DC on schedule. I made it to the hotel as people were arriving for the meeting. I checked in, showered, and was ready for my meeting on time. My meeting went very well, and I was surprised by how much I was able to rest on my flight. Mission accomplished! In DC, the weather was sunny and warm, in the 80’s.
On the following day I left Washington DC at 6pm and was back in Eugene at 10:45pm on March 23rd. All that snow of two days ago was gone. Except for a few patches here and there.
And by my car in the parking lot, all I could find was an even smaller patch of snow. This was a long post for a long delay. When flying frequently, we are bound to encounter delays. Long delays are the rare event. But they happen. Once I had a 24 hour delay while in Samoa. Not a bad place to have a long delay. Another time I had a 2-day delay in Honolulu. And yet another time a 3-day delay in Orlando, Florida. All great places to have a delay. This one in Eugene was not a big deal after all.
Airlines and safety seem to be improving, this is good for all travelers. With improved systems and regulations that enforce safety, a delay is usually a price we pay to fly safer. And I’m in favor of more safety, of course. And once again, I want to thank all the Eugene Airport and the United staff who diligently worked on March 21st to make things happen as smoothly as possible, despite the challenges imposed by the exceptional circumstances.