Another day, another long delay. The good news is that this one was actually handled well, despite what you might be hearing elsewhere.. Let’s talk about Virgin America flight 404 and its 16 hour odyssey getting from LA to New York.
You probably know that the weather in New York was simply horrendous last week. It was shockingly bad to the point where JFK stopped operating for awhile when wind gusts reach more than 70 kts. Now, a ton of flights were canceled, but Virgin America 404 wasn’t one of them.
The plane took off from LAX at 734a and diverted to New York’s Stewart/Newburgh Airport when it couldn’t land at JFK. The plane landed at 515p, meaning it was in the air for nearly 7 hours. What you’ll see in other news outlets is that the people were trapped on the plane for hours and hours, getting verbally abused by the crew. Now let’s get the full story.
The plane had already been circling New York for awhile, hoping for a gap in the weather to open up. That didn’t happen and they were running low on fuel, so they went to Stewart and passengers sat there for 4.5 hours. Upon landing, there were no gates available; they were filled by JetBlue diversions. So, the plane went to what’s called a hardstand. Basically, that’s an empty spot where they could park.
Thirty five minutes after parking, they rolled up airstairs and gave people the option to get off. Some got off right then. Another couple groups left over the next couple hours totaling twenty people in all. Passengers were quickly served water and more was brought to the plane when they ran low. The lavs were working the whole time. About halfway through the sit, they ran out of food, though people could have gone in to the airport if they wanted.
Through the ground sit, Virgin America kept monitoring the weather and hoping that they would be allowed to takeoff again. Things kept changing rapidly but they got worse instead of better as originally expected. Four hours into the ground sit, Virgin America decided to cancel the flight and bus people to JFK instead. The plane did eventually take off without passengers and went back to New York to position it for its next flight.
So what really went wrong here? It sounds like the crew had a meltdown of sorts. There are reports of crewmembers snapping at the passengers and getting angry. You can watch some snippets of what seems like good cockpit communication here, but I guess the fireworks happened later. That was probably the only thing that really should have been done differently.
Let’s go down the checklist.
- Were passengers trapped on a plane for more than 3 hours without being allowed to leave? No.
- Did the lavs work? Yes.
- Were passengers provided food and water? Yes, until they ran out of food, but people could have gone into the terminal.
- Did the crew give constant updates? It seemed like the pilot did a good job.
So as far as handling goes, things went somewhat by the book. And the three hour rule wouldn’t have applied here. But regarding the long wait on the plane, well, the quickly changing weather was the culprit. There was no mass conspiracy to keep people on a plane. They honestly thought they were going to be able to get out of there.
Still, the flight attendants losing their cool is a huge problem, and whether it’s their fault or whether it came due to lack of support from the airline itself doesn’t matter. The airline is responsible, and they owned up to it quite nicely. The CEO of social media site Kontain was onboard and updating frequently (link posted above), and Virgin America saw it. CEO David Cush immediately reached out and offered a personal apology. He sent a written apology to each passenger, gave them full refunds, and gave a credit for a future flight.
Things go wrong, we know that. In this case, the weather didn’t cooperate and the flight attendants seemed to have trouble handling the situation. But the airline recovered nicely. Overall, a nasty situation was handled quite well. Had the flight attendants handled things better, we probably wouldn’t have even heard about this.
Update 3/18 @ 726p: Virgin America has posted a very detailed report (PDF) on its website if you want full details. Also, it appears that I was wrong. Since they ran out of food a couple hours in, that technically would have been a violation of the new 3 hour rule despite doing absolutely everything else right.