United Flight Mirrors JetBlue Debacle

CHICAGO - The trouble with United Airlines Flight 907 started small.

A last-minute switch to a smaller aircraft on Saturday meant some passengers who had traded frequent-flier miles for first-class seats found themselves downgraded to coach. A few were angry - very angry.

Boarding halted while the matter was straightened out. Tempers soothed. And as the last passengers stepped onto the full airliner bound for San Francisco, the first snowflakes - ice pellets, really - started to fall at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

That small glitch, United says, was the difference between leaving before a snow-and-ice storm raked O'Hare and getting caught in the mess that ensued.

No flight fared worse in that storm than UA907. The Boeing 757 languished on the tarmac for seven hours before the pilots finally canceled the flight. It took another agonizing hour to get the plane back to the gate, where exhausted and frustrated passengers stumbled off the jet after midnight.

What is striking is that United's marathon flight to nowhere occurred as the airline industry pledged to take better care of grounded passengers after a Feb. 14 storm left JetBlue Airways passengers stranded on planes at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport for up to 10 hours.

"The whole experience was outrageous, particularly in light of what happened with JetBlue at JFK," said George Simmons, a passenger on that United flight.

United representatives are calling all passengers on Flight 907 to apologize and to offer travel vouchers of up to $500.

"Our aim is to get our passengers to their destinations safely, and we apologize for the length of time one of our flights was on hold with passengers on board," said Jean Medina, a United spokeswoman.

Despite the airlines' best efforts, this is turning into a winter of discontent for some air travelers. Consumers' frustration with airline delays and cancellations is building as every snowstorm seemingly brings more stories of stranded planes and service breakdowns.

"This is still happening across the board. We need help," said Kate Hanni, who was stranded for more than six hours on an American Airlines flight that was diverted to Austin, Texas, in December. She since has become an advocate for federal legislation requiring airlines to let passengers off planes stuck on the ground for extraordinary lengths.

But despite the recent rash of airline horror stories, "they are extremely rare situations," said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group for the major U.S. carriers.

Only 25 of the 140,000 flights United has flown since Dec. 1 were delayed by more than three hours, according to the airline.

Flight 907's icy purgatory was the result of bad luck, extreme weather and the pilots' determination to stick it out on the tarmac, say people familiar with the events. To passengers, the experience was torture because every time departure seemed possible, the plane would need to be de-iced again.

Storms like Saturday's, which hit while the weather hovers around the freezing point, are especially hard for the airlines to handle.

"You can always take off in a snowstorm," said Roger King, airline analyst with CreditSights, a credit research firm. "If you're an airline pilot, the one thing that scares you is ice."

United and American canceled hundreds of flights slated for Saturday night, anticipating conditions would turn icy as the evening wore on. Flight 907 was among the last flights scheduled to depart before the storm would hit.

With all 181 passengers on board, ground crews started spraying the plane with de-icing fluid at around 5:20 p.m., then stopped. The stinging ice pellets were changing into freezing rain far earlier than predicted. In such conditions, trying to keep ice off the plane was useless.

As the rain turned to snow more than an hour later, the plane once again readied for departure, finally pulling away from the gate at 7:39 p.m. But the weather rapidly deteriorated. By 8:10 p.m., visibility had dropped to about one-quarter of a mile due to heavy snow and fog, according to National Weather Service data.

The pilots headed back to be de-iced, joining a line of planes waiting between United's two main concourses. That was the story of the evening, say people who were on board the flight: Wait an interminable amount of time for de-icing, prepare to leave, repeat the process.

As the hours dragged on, the plane remained parked within hundreds of yards of United's terminal, Simmons said. It ventured out to the runway once, only to turn back when ice was spotted on the wings.

"You couldn't see out the window because we were encased in ice," said Simmons, a program director with a large non-profit group in San Francisco.

Passengers remained calm, watching the movie "The Prestige" and other programs broadcast on the plane's entertainment system. Mothers walked their small children up and down the aisles. Flight attendants served drinks, then all of the meals stowed on the flight, finally breaking out emergency food rations that United stows on all its aircraft for such delays.

Simmons read a book, strolling to the back of the plane occasionally to stretch his legs.

"I didn't get upset until about 7 hours into the flight," he said.

That's about the point when the plane's pilots finally decided they'd had enough. But it took the plane another hour to get back to the terminal: First they had to wait for city crews to move a pile of snow.

When passengers exited, it was after midnight, and the nearest customer service counter was closing at 1 a.m. Simmons lucked into a room at the O'Hare Hilton and got a seat on a United flight the next day.

What he can't understand is why United waited so long to cancel the flight.

"They should've canceled it at 5," Simmons said.

Medina says that was the pilot's call, although United is looking at how it handles operations in poor weather.

"As this was the last flight expected to get out that evening, we were hoping to get our customers where they wanted to go, and, unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate," she said.

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