The headlines in recent days and weeks have been filled with stories of airline misadventures - people getting dragged off planes by the police, fistfights between passengers, rude treatment from flight staff, and on and on. I really can't relate to much of what we're seeing lately - Jenn and I have flown exactly twice since 9/11, and while air travel wasn't exactly pleasant back in the day, it has gotten noticeably less pleasant since then. Anyway, the recent stories remind me of one egregious tale of airborne awfulness. . .
It was June of 1998, and my youngest brother was getting married in Missoula, Montana. Jenn and I duly made our plans to fly out and be with my family in celebration of the joyous nuptials. 7M was 2 months old at the time, and in those days, you could still take an infant-in-arms on a plane, well, in-arms, without a child-seat (or, more relevantly to the cash-flow, another ticket).
In the week or so before our flight, a couple of our friends, who flew a lot more than we did, came to us, asking which airline we were flying on. It turned out that the pilots' union for the airline which, indeed, we were flying on, was approaching the end of their contract, and had set a strike deadline for the weekend we were travelling. Naive as we were, we didn't overly concern ourselves over it, and continued with our travel plans as if nothing was up.
Flying to Missoula from OurTown was a bit of an ordeal, all by itself, involving two planes, and four separate take-offs and landings. From OurTown, we flew to another Michigan airport, about a 20-minute flight (and east of OurTown, so we began our journey traveling backwards.). From there we flew to Minneapolis, where we changed planes and flew to Great Falls, Montana. At this point, we were starting to relax, since it was only another 30 minutes or so in the air to Missoula. We landed in Great Falls, and stayed on the plane, taking on a few more passengers, then taking off to our final destination.
Now, Missoula sits in a little bowl in the mountains, and whereas it had been bright and sunny all the way from OurTown to Great Falls and beyond, it was cloudy and rainy at Missoula (such are the climatological vagaries of mountainous terrain). Even so, we broke through the bottom of the clouds, and the whole valley laid out below us. We could even see the lights of the airport. So we began to pack and stow our stuff in preparation to land. The plane began its descent, and about halfway down, the pilot suddenly pulled up, aborting his landing, and went back into a holding pattern, informing us that conditions weren't favorable, but he would line up and try again. We started down once more, but this time, he pulled up even sooner, telling us over the intercom that flight rules required 1000 feet visibility to land, but visibility was only 995 feet, so he was taking us back to Great Falls. Which he did.
We arrived back at Great Falls (it was still bright and sunny), and taxied to the terminal building. But not to a jetway. Or any other means of leaving the plane. The pilot engaged in some, uh, negotiations with his bosses about getting back in the air, and getting us all to Missoula. While we sat in our seats on the plane. For an hour. With the plane powered down. Including the air conditioning. Finally, the pilot came back on the intercom, and told us that he was going to try to take us back to Missoula, even though conditions there hadn't improved, and he personally didn't think it was wise.
So we took off again, and in 30 minutes we were back at the bowl in the mountains where Missoula sits. Again, the pilot made an attempt to land, but pulled up halfway down. From the holding pattern, he told us that he'd make one more run, and this time, he descended virtually to ground level. Except that, when we got to the airport, we were about 20 feet off the ground - AND THE RUNWAY WAS 20 YARDS TO OUR LEFT!! He flew along in that configuration for virtually the entire length of the runway, before pulling back up, announcing that it just wasn't safe to land in Missoula that day, and took us back to Great Falls. Again.
When we arrived back at Great Falls this time, we got off the plane, and the airline hastily arranged a fleet of buses to convey us all to Missoula.
The bus ride was pleasant enough, as bus rides go, but it was three hours, instead of the 30 minute flight we'd signed on for (and which - bonus points! - we'd already done twice, and twice more in reverse). It twisted and wound through some beautiful montains. At one point, the driver came on the intercom to tell us that just over the ridge to our left was the Unabomber cabin, so you know, more bonus points.
We eventually arrived in Missoula, just in time for dessert at the rehearsal dinner, and about five times more bedraggled than we started out. The wedding the next day was lovely (some years later, Jenn and I rented the movie A River Runs Through It; the church in the movie is the same one in which my brother and his wife were married), and the day after the wedding, my brother took us for a hike in the mountains, which was pure bonus points.
The airline and the union settled their differences over the weekend, and we returned home without incident.
But there remains a special place in Purgatory for the pilot who used the lives of a plane-load of passengers as a bargaining chip that day. Oh, he made a nice show of following the rules (that last 5 feet of visibility made all the difference, I'm sure), and he gave us a nice stunt-flying performance (flying 20 feet off the ground, exactly parallel to the runway; if he could do that, he could land the plane on the runway; asshole), which we were privileged to view from inside the plane, no less. And he used up six hours of our lives in the process. All to flip the bird at his bosses. What a guy! But hey, we got to drive past the Unabomber cabin, and we did eventually get to Missoula, so there's that. . .