On January 19, United Airlines UA179 set off from Newark Liberty International Airport near New York, bound for Hong Kong. As the flight progressed over Newfoundland and headed towards Greenland, a passenger became ill and a diversion to Goose Bay became necessary. After landing the passenger was taken for treatment but unfortunately the aircraft, Boeing 777-224/ER N76010, developed a technical fault that prevented it from taking off again. The passengers had to endure more than 14 hours on board the grounded aircraft, with food and drink beginning to run out, before a replacement took them back to Newark. United's customers eventually returned to where they had started their trip, about 24 hours after leaving.
The incident was reported by the media and caused debate on aviation forums and social media. Thankfully problems such as this are rather rare, so when they involve passengers having extended journeys in less than ideal conditions they tend to make headlines.
United Airlines Boeing 777-224/ER N76010 diverted to Goose Bay in Canada on January 19 while en route to Hong Kong. (Mark Harkin)
It's worth The Aviation Oracle reviewing the UA179 incident in a little more detail and - using a background that involved working with airline operations - explain why disruptions such as this sometimes take Time to resolve.
Flight UA179 - Newark to Hong Kong
UA179 is a 15 hour flight that usually routes up the eastern seaboard of the USA and Canada, then on over Greenland and the polar region before crossing Siberia and eastern China, and finally descending into Hong Kong.
Flight UA179 normally takes a polar route to Hong Kong. (Flightradar24.com)
On January 19 N76010 left the gate at Newark 15 minutes late at 15:20 local time. Around 45 minutes into the flight - when it was in the Boston area - a passenger began to feel ill and started to have seizures. The condition was judged not life-threatening and the captain elected to continue the journey - as would be common practice at almost every airline. Passengers fall ill in the air almost every day and rarely is an immediate diversion warranted - if the patient does not need immediate attention the flight will continue as it is the best way of avoiding disrupting hundreds of passengers.
On January 19 UA179 almost reached Greenland before it turned around and landed at Goose Bay in Canada. (Flightradar24.com)
Around two hours later as UA179 approached the western coast of Greenland the passenger's condition became more severe. Lacking any suitable place to land in Greenland the captain elected to turn back and at 20:30 (19:30 Newark time) N76010 touched down at Goose Bay. The ill passenger was taken off the aircraft and to a local hospital.
Diversion to Goose Bay, Canada
The flight had been running for almost five hours and Hong Kong was another 11 hours or more away. Aircrew total duty hours (from report time at origin to off duty time at destination) are very tightly regulated and there was no way either the pilots or cabin crew would legally have been allowed to continue all the way to Asia without a substantial period of rest beforehand. United Airlines has no 777-qualified crew on the ground in Goose Bay so there were two choices: take everyone off the aircraft and have them stay locally until the crew was sufficeintly rested to be able to continue, or return to Newark. The latter was a much shorter trip and at that stage would have been legal for the crew, and once back at base United should have been able to muster a relief crew to take the flight back out to Hong Kong again.
Goose Bay was subject from -30C temperatures and does not have a surfeit of hotel accommodation so quite rightly the United operations control centre decided the aircraft should return to Newark. With that plan set in action, there was no need to consider alternatives. The original plan was for N76010 to leave Goose Bay again just before 22:00 but then, when that didn't happen, departure was rescheduled for 01:00 the next morning. The delay was caused by another problem - the aircraft developed a defect while on the ground in Goose Bay. It seems that having opened the doors to evacuate the unwell passenger, moisture entered the mechanism and thawed due to the heat in the cabin, but froze again when the door was closed. This rendered the door inoperable which in turn meant the aircraft was grounded. Local mechanics attempted to rectify the defect but failed to do so.
With the aircraft unable to depart, United operations had to make another decision. Options were limited. The Canadian immigration and border inspection station at Goose Bay was closed for the night and reopening it was not possible until 08:00 on January 20. With officials not available to process the passengers and crew into Canada, no one was allowed to leave the aircraft; only in a life-threatening emergency would travellers have been able to enter the country without the usual checks. Goose Bay Airport (YYR) has a small terminal that could just about handle a 777 but even if the passengers had been able to disembark there were insufficient hotel rooms in the area to accommodate a full widebody load. United therefore decided a another 777 had to be sent to Goose Bay to pick up the customers. The weary passengers had already been stuck in the cabin of the aircraft in northeastern Canada for five hours, and Goose was three hours flying time away from the nearest spare aircraft in Newark.
Replacement Boeing 777-224/ER, N57016, was sent to Goose Bay to repatriate the passengers but was delayed leaving Newark. (Flightradar24.com)
It appears that the rescue flight was then subject to a substantial delay. The reality is that even at major bases, very few airlines have staff sitting around on what is known as reserve or standby at 01:00, waiting to be assigned to rescue missions. Almost all of the aircrews at Newark would either be part way through legally mandated rest following an earlier flight, resting ahead of duties later in the day, or not able to fly due to commutative past duties or restrictions such as consumption of alcohol while off duty. So the replacement aircraft, Boeing 777-224/ER N57016 - a sister of the stranded machine - eventually got airborne from Newark as UA2757 not at 01:00, but at 08:57.
The second 777 finally touched down in Goose Bay at 11:51. By then, the passengers had been on the original aircraft for about 14 hours. Food and drink was running short and local airport staff had arranged for local provisions to be delivered the aircraft. Although heating was available from the onboard auxiliary power unit, the cabin was said to have become uncomfortably cold.
Passengers finally returned to Newark more than 24 hours after they originally left. (Flightradar24.com)
The repatriation flight to Newark was scheduled to leave at 13:00 but eventually got airborne at 15:53. By then the passengers had been in Canada for 18 hours. It took four hours to transfer staff, passengers and bags from one 777 to the other - perhaps not surprising given the harsh weather conditions and the handling rudimentary facilities at Goose Bay that are rarely called on to handle large widebodies aircraft. Boeing 777 N57016 finally got the weary travelers to Newark at 17:57 on January 20, 26 hours after they left.
No airline plans to - or expects to have to - disrupt passengers to the extent those on UA179 were subjected. The huge delay was the result of an extenuating set of circumstances that no contingency plan could envisage, and was exacerbated by further adverse developments as events unfolded. United would have wanted nothing more than to get its customers to Hong Kong as expediently as possible - not only were they disrupted but all the travellers booked on the original return flight from Asia to the USA were affected too. No airline has crews sitting at remote airports which they don't usually fly to in anticipation of a very unlikely diversion. When an aircraft has to land somewhere unexpectedly, the original pilots and cabin staff usually run out of duty hours and replacements have to be flown in. And no carrier has surfeit of unused aircraft sitting on the ground awaiting a call for a rescue flight. Provision of standby aircraft and crew could be possible, but would render operations totally uneconomic or have a dramatic effect on airfares.
United's customers spent a very uncomfortable and cold night aboard a grounded 777 in a remote part of Canada due to a sick passenger, an aircraft malfunction, the closure of Canadian immigration, legal duty limitations, and the time it takes to muster a rescue mission. Given the way events unfolded, it's difficult to see how the situation could have been resolved much more quickly.
Timeline - all times Newark local for clarity (source Flightradar24.com)
15:05 - N76010 / UA179 scheduled to leave Newark, NJ for Hong Kong
15:21 - N76010 / UA179 actually leaves Newark, NJ for Hong Kong
16:00 - passenger on UA179 becomes ill
18:40 - N76010 / UA179 turns round in flight near the Greenland coast
20:40 - N76010 / UA179 arrives at Goose Bay, Newfoundland
01:00 - N57016 / UA2758 planned to depart Newark to rescue passengers
08:57 - N57016 / UA2758 departs Newark to rescue passengers
10:51 - N57016 / UA2758 arrives Goose Bay
12:00 - N57016 / UA8179 planned to depart Goose Bay with passengers
14:54 - N57016 / UA8179 departs Goose Bay with passengers
17:57 - N57016 / UA8179 arrives back at Newark with passengers
11:45 - N76010 / UA2784 original aircraft departs Goose Bay empty after repair
14:19 - N76010 / UA2784 original aircraft arrives at Newark empty after repair
Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight things could have been done slightly differently. The passengers could have been taken off immediately the after the aircraft landed in Goose Bay when immigration was still open. But after the original diversion a quick turnround would have undoubtedly have been expected - only the ill passenger needed to be taken off and some extra fuel loaded. Disembarking and reboarding more than 200 customers would have delayed the departure. But then the aircraft became defective. Perhaps a rescue mission from Newark could have been launched immediately but the initial reaction is usually to have a local engineer investigate the problem. And again few airlines have an excess of crews on standby and available to launch a recovery mission, especially at times of day when there are no scheduled departures. When it finally became apparent that the flight would be on the ground at Goose Bay for a considerable period, could Canadian immigration have been brought back in to process the passengers and enable them to go to local accommodation? Who knows.
More than 99% of the world's passenger flights operate without major irregularity. Occasionally a diversion is necessary and even then most trips subsequently continue without major disruption. Only occasionally does a situation like UA179 arise. When it does staff on the ground, in the air and in the operations control centres do their best to recover the operation as expediently as possible. The Aviation Oracle hopes that this commentary has given readers a little insight into how things very occasionally go pear-shaped despite everyone's best endeavours - it's only on very rare occasions that a flight such as UA179 makes the headlines.
Text © The Aviation Oracle