Lessons Learned From My First In-Flight Mechanical & Return to Gate

about two and a half hours out from Newark to Geneva yesterday, the captain came on and told us he was “sorry to be the bearer of bad news.” at first, i thought it was something like a toilet broke so lines would be longer at the remaining ones.

if only it were so minor. we were heading back.


apparently something went wrong with one of the compressors that maintains cabin pressure or ventilation — while there are two such systems on the 767-300 and the remaining one was still operational, after deliberations with Operations in Newark and Chicago, they decided to return to Newark. there was a part of me that was excited to have experienced my first in-flight mechanical (and glad it wasn’t too serious), but i started to worry about how i’d get rerouted. i overheard that the pilots and flight attendants timed out (meaning they legally cannot work another flight), so they’d have to get a new crew in, and i was hopeful they could repair the plane, but alas, no, that wasn’t to be the case.

IMG_4861of course, they could give us no additional information other than, “i’m sure that in the next 2½ hours that it will take for us to get back, they will be working on alternate travel plans for everyone.”

when we landed, a ground agent came on and told us to separate out into the three lines, one for Global Services, one for BusinessFirst, and one for everyone else (i asked, no separate 1K line). luckily i was one of the first people in the “everyone else” line. as it turned out, most people, including me, were, or were going to be, rebooked on the same flight on the next day, although i know some people ended up canceling all together.

lessons to be learned

  • if you can’t travel with a carry-on (which is pretty much the only way i travel unless i’m going somewhere long-term for work), at least take your essentials on with you. they did not unload luggage after we landed at Newark*, and my seatmate was left without his medication and cell phone charger. if you are indeed without your toiletries you can probably get free ones at the hotel. United had some toothbrushes with toothpaste they were handing out, but you may have to ask for them.

    * i’m sure they had their reasons, but if everyone had to stay the night, wouldn’t it make sense to take the bags off and make people pick them up, rather than take them off and store them somewhere only to reload them onto a different plane the next day or pay to deliver them back to someone’s home?

  • don’t expect any updates from the pilot or flight attendants. they didn’t give further updates other than to say someone will be coming on board to let us know what to do (in this case, file out and go to those separate gates), and i’m sure they’re not purposely keeping information from us, so they likely know just as much as we do about what’s going to happen: BUPKIS.
  • complicating matters is that there is a large snowstorm passing through the area now, so it’s making everything really hairy with worries of further cancellations, so keep an eye out on your new flight’s status, as well as the status of the incoming plane (there’s a link on United.com and in their app, “Where is this aircraft coming from?”) so you can be proactive about requiring further fixes to your itinerary if necessary. luckily our incoming plane just landed from Honolulu, so that’s a good sign. (still about 6 hours to go until we depart, though.)
  • you may not need to wait in line. i received an email saying i was rebooked on the next day’s flight, but only after i waited in line and the agent changed it. i don’t know if it was triggered by her change, or if it was automatic, but at least they had hotel vouchers ready for Star Alliance Gold passengers. it’s possible you could have picked one of those up and called in to change your flight, or you may have already been rebooked (keep an eye out for an email or check your itinerary on your phone). UPDATE thanks to @bigjondaniel: call the airline while you are waiting in line for rebooking; if they can help you, you are at least ahead of everyone else in front of you.

    when i had a very delayed flight from Istanbul to Newark a couple years ago, forcing everyone with connections to miss them, they had hotel vouchers and new boarding passes already set up and printed to be picked up by the time we landed. too bad that wasn’t the case here!

  • United continues to be good about compensation notification. waiting for me when i landed was an email offering one of the following: 30,000 MileagePlus miles, a $500 certificate for domestic travel, or 20% off any flight. i’m not sure how much this varies for people with or without elite status. (for the record, i took the $500 because i have domestic travel i need to book anyways.)
  • you don’t get any protection for prepaid hotels from an American Express Platinum card. i had one night booked in Geneva since i actually changed my flight to leave a day earlier in an attempt to avoid the weather (now i’m back to flying on my original date), prepaid using my Amex. i called them just to see if there was any sort of travel insurance coverage for that — nope. i knew chances were slim to none, but it didn’t hurt to call and ask.
  • don’t expect ground agents to be pleasant. or know how to work their equipment. just roll with the punches. they probably don’t want to be there any more than you do.

anyone else have any tips for cases like this?

UPDATED to add some things i forgot to include in the original post:

  • don’t turn down free food. maybe i’m just a cheap oinkster, but whether it’s the in-flight meal or any meal vouchers* you get, grab some food. especially if you’re going to be overnighting at a hotel, you might not eat for a while unless you get room service, delivery, or something from the little convenience store in the lobby — all of which are last resort options for me. don’t pass up an opportunity to eat!

    * you can use multiple vouchers at a time, but you don’t get any change back; i got 3 $7s vouchers this time around. they were valid for use in the “sundry shop” at the Hampton Inn i was put up at, but i saved them for use at the airport since it’s at least closer to “real food”.

  • United will not reimburse for transportation back to the airport if the free shuttle is canceled due to weather. due to the storm today, the Hampton Inn was not running a shuttle, but they did help to organize a car service, which cost $25 out of pocket per person. @united confirmed they will not reimburse, even though United chose this place and the hotel supposedly warned them they would not have shuttle service beforehand.

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