I’m home from a whirlwind trip around the world and finally settling back into my schedule, which feels so good. I actually got to go to the farmer’s market today and have spent lots of lovely time in the kitchen. I cooked dinner BOTH nights this weekend, which I think is a good indication of how happy I am to be home safe and sound (we typically go out to eat on the weekends after eating at home all week).
I will recap the international adventures of the last few weeks, along with some Shanghai/SF/Napa highlights and recs, but I have to kick it off with a totally crazy story that may incite nerves over flying (you’re forewarned). Also, this is a LONG story. Spoiler alert: it involves not just one, but TWO emergency flight landings.
Here’s the story…
Sometimes things do not go as they are planned. This is life. I thought by now I’d learned this lesson, but it came in an entirely new format over my recent hop over the Pacific en route to Shanghai. Shall I start from the beginning?
When the opportunity arose to travel to Shanghai for work, I was shocked and so very excited. I didn’t hesitate to make the decision to go, especially when Joshua expressed interest in joining. We researched flights and decided to merge this work/play adventure with an existing trip scheduled for San Francisco and Napa on the books over Halloween weekend. I insisted that we fly on a Boeing jet and begged for the shortest flights possible. This resulted in a schedule like this:
Los Angeles –> Seattle –> Shanghai
Shanghai –> Tokyo –> San Francisco
The initial journey to the land of China went according to plan, but the trip home was botched in a bad, bad way.
Shanghai –> Osaka –> Tokyo –> Cold Bay, Alaska –> San Francisco
I wish I were lying.
On October 30th, we departed from Shanghai around 8:40am for a short two-hour connecting flight to Tokyo (DL296). About halfway through, the pilot came on the PA system to inform us that we would be making an emergency landing in Osaka due to a signal showing a problem with the fuel pump.
I so desperately tried to keep my cool. I nervously chatted up the flight attendant sitting across from us (we were in the emergency row and had jump seats in front of us). We flew over crazy green mountains and descended over the ocean. When it looked like we were about to land in the water, the runway appeared and the jet touched down moments later.
After the promised 15 minutes on the runway turned into an hour, we were told that the signal was only an error and we were safe to move on to Tokyo. I was mostly relieved to be safe and sound, but somewhat disappointed that we wouldn’t have time to explore the Tokyo airport as planned.
We finally landed in Tokyo with only an hour instead of the expected four to walk around and scarf down some ramen. We boarded the new plane and settled in for the nine-hour flight to SF (DL208).
At 4pm, we took off and started making our way across the Pacific. It was like perpetual nighttime due to the movement backwards into time (time zones are so weird). We happily snoozed and watched movies, and the first six or so hours passed rather quickly. In the middle of the Pacific, I had just popped in my earplugs and donned my eye mask when there was a sudden and abnormal loud noise, followed by a palpable vibration. I immediately clicked on the flight tracker and noticed that our cruising altitude began to drop. Within 10 or 15 minutes, we went from 35,000 feet to 21,000 feet, and slowed our speed to about 400 MPH. Our plane had also taken a sharp left heading north towards Alaska. I began to smell smoke, but convinced myself that I was imagining it (I later found out that other passengers also smelled smoke).
This is obviously not the sort of thing you want to experience while you’re miles above the ocean and hours from solid ground. My immediate reaction was purely physical. My teeth started chattering, my legs began shaking uncontrollably, and my mouth went completely dry. I was in disbelief that something could possibly be going wrong yet again.
To make matters worse, the pilot had not come on to offer any explanation or news. Absolute silence. Desperate for some shred of information, I made my way to the back of the plane where the flight attendants were gathering. I asked for water and quickly learned that they too knew nothing. We were all in the same boat (umm…I wish I had been on a literal boat at that moment).
Joshua, who is normally so calm and rational, was practically coming undone. Other passengers began talking across the aisles to one another as we all speculated over where we were going (obviously not SFO) and what the hell was going on with the plane. Everyone was glued to the flight tracker screen, stalking our altitude and watching as our orange destination button changed from inland Alaska to coastal Alaska, still over two hours away.
Nearly an hour passed like this. As the minutes mounted, more and more passengers were audibly wondering why on earth the pilot was maintaining his silence. Bundles of nerves and the beginnings of panic were building when we finally heard a voice over the PA system.
The pilot immediately apologized for the delay in speaking to us and explained that since the audible ‘pop’ we all heard, the flight crew had been in constant communication with ground control, Delta headquarters in Atlanta, and other experts who could see what was going on with our plane and were trying to figure out how to best proceed. We learned that the left engine control system had shut down, and it would be imperative for us to get on the ground as soon as possible. As he told us that we were headed to Cold Bay, Alaska, a small runway in the Aleutian Islands and the very first place we could land, our flight destination updated on the screen to a tiny little spot at the tip of Alaska.
An incredibly exhausting and stressful beyond words hour or so later, we descended in the pitch-blackness and made a safe landing on solid ground. The pilot came on again immediately to further explain what had happened. Evidently, the left engine did, in fact, shut down automatically in flight, so he had no choice but to land the plane with just one engine. He repeated several times that landing in Cold Bay was absolutely the best and safest decision. He sounded relieved.
I was far too thankful to be alive and on the ground to be upset when I learned that we would be sitting on the plane for six more hours. We learned that the unanimous decision was to send a replacement plane and crew from Seattle to rescue us. Because we landed at the absolute first place we physically could, it was far from a preferred location.
As it turned out, Cold Bay has a fantastic World War II relic – a really long, still functional runway. Only, this runway isn’t really at an airport. There are no terminals, no gates, no TSA, no customs. We were physically and legally unable to get off the plane.
I’m assuming that Delta realized there’s an FAA law against holding passengers on a parked airplane for longer than a couple of hours. They far surpassed this limitation, and then finally attached a rusted set of stairs to the door to let us de-board. We were then shuttled in groups of twenty to several locations in the small town of sixty people.
I found myself at a community center, where an Anchorage-based Delta representative further informed us that we’d be waiting even longer for the rescue plane to arrive.
The plane finally came, and we were all gracefully shuttled back to the runway by some kind Cold Bay folks. The headache continued once we boarded and realized that the seat configuration was different, so the standing instructions to locate our same seats were void. Passengers who paid to sit in economy comfort were bumped to coach, and passengers generally just sat wherever they could find an open seat.
Clearly this was a minor ordeal compared to the terror that we all felt just hours before, and I think we all assumed that Delta would adequately compensate us for the whole host of madness that we were going through.
Above all else, we arrived safely in SFO 12 hours after our scheduled arrival time. It was announced that we were receiving flight vouchers to compensate us for the massively botched trip.
In the day that followed, we found out that Delta had essentially credited us 10,000 miles, which is the equivalent of $100. We also checked the news and found tons of articles on national news publications about our major mishap. However, the news was clearly misinformed by a Delta spokesperson that had released a statement that our flight crew acted out of extreme precaution by landing in Cold Bay and that none of the engines were out at any point during our flight. So to make matters worse, Delta was not only screwing us out of fair compensation but also flat-out lying to the public (see one of the many articles here).
To recap, we experienced TWO emergency landings in a row, an illegal wait time on a grounded plane, an extra 3 or so hours in the air, a 12 hour delay to our final destination, unimaginable terror in the dark above the ocean, and seat changes that translated to dollars lost for paying passengers.
So for us, the story doesn’t end here. We’re currently taking this up with Delta and demanding fairer compensation for a nightmare of a trip that will make it undoubtedly challenging to fly confidently again anytime soon.