Post reporter experiences tense United flight
- Post reporter experiences tense United flight
For more than three hours late Monday afternoon, before boarding up more than 200 passengers on Chicago-to-Denver flight 909, United Airlines officials had tried to cool down an extremely hot widebody jet at O'Hare International Airport.
The auxiliary power unit, or APU, on the Boeing 777, which generates electricity for planes when engines are shut down at the gate, was broken. Chicago's 100-degree heat and blazing sun had baked the plane's dark blue and gray skin, sending temperatures in the empty cabin soaring to at least 115 degrees.
Flight 909 had been scheduled for a 2:45 p.m. departure. To cool the cabin down, United first tried pumping air in at the gate. That didn't work. Then they started one engine at the gate, pushed the plane back and took it to a holding pad to get air flowing.
All other flights to Denver were booked full throughout the day. United tried to find a replacement plane for the 777, but none was available. If the company cancelled flight 909, it might be putting hundreds of travelers up in hotels.
At around 6:30 p.m., the big jet reappeared at the terminal and a growing gaggle of United officials told remaining travelers (some had bailed out) that they would be boarding. The cabin still was hot, company representatives said, but they would speed the boarding process and once an engine was started and the plane pushed back, the temperature would start moderating.
By 7, all were on board and the door closed. It was hot, probably in the low 90s. Officials said they had packed extra water and juice, but instead of a bottle of water on each seat, there was a blanket.
Captain Michael Glawe, his co-pilot and the plane's purser, or lead flight attendant, had spent hours on the sweltering plane trying to get it cooled down.
When the jet returned to the gate to board passengers, an external air source was hooked to the plane to prevent further overheating, Glawe said. Because the APU was not operating, that external air had be pulled and another air source supplied to start one engine, he added.
The process needed swift execution, but it did not happen.
Passengers waited for the engine start, and waited some more. There was little or no air flowing and the body heat of hundreds of passengers and crew members was lifting the temperature. It now was very hot in the cabin and cockpit.
There was no panic, but there was concern among the passengers. Some began to break out cellphones and call for help. One tried alerting an acquaintance, chief of the air traffic control tower at O'Hare, about flight 909's predicament.
Around 7:30, the chief flight attendant goton the intercom and said "we know it's over 100 degrees." She said she had notified the captain how bad it was in the cabin and that he said the engine start would come within two minutes.
About the same time, Glawe was giving his own ultimatum to company officials -- supply air for the start or empty the plane. He was worried about heatstroke in the cabin.
"I was right on the verge of getting everybody off the airplane," he said today. "The plane was so heat-soaked that it was going to be warm until we got to altitude."
Monday night, just after the the doors were closed on the 777, Glawe, a United veteran and former pilots' union chief, had told passengers that it had been "one of the goofiest and most frustrating afternoons I've ever spent with the airline."
Finally, within seconds of Glawe's warning, the engine was started. Almost immediately, some air was flowing.
"I couldn't breathe; I thought I was going to faint," said passenger Sandy Ball, sitting in seat 37C. She later recalled that if the crew's request for two minutes more had expired without action, "I was going to stand up and scream. They endangered our lives putting us on that plane."
One frustrated flight attendant came down the aisle telling passengers to call United's headquarters and let executives know how bad it was. "Otherwise it will never change."
The plane took off at 8, and as soon as the flight attendants could get up, hydration began. Within an hour, it was so cool in the cabin that many passengers were grabbing blankets.
As the jet landed in Denver, the lead flight attendant apologized and begged people to give United another chance. She said, "This has been a very embarrassing and unprofessional situation."
"We're extremely sorry to everyone on that aircraft," United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said today. "Our crew did the best job they could to get that plane cooled as quickly as possible."
Staff writer Jeffrey Leib was a passenger on flight 909. He can be reached at 303-820-1645 or at jleib@....