Travel Horrors: Flying : Flightmare : . . . So he huffed and he puffed, but he still couldn't get that plane off the ground

Clarke is travel editor of the Miami Herald

That morning in London, I was looking forward to returning home to my wife and three children in Florida. It had been an arduous trip: two weeks traveling alone in Europe on a reporting tour and never more than three days in any one locale.

Now I had just one more flight, a nonstop to Miami. Nine hours across the Atlantic and I'd be home.

Everything went smoothly at first--the cab from downtown London, the flight check-in, boarding the plane. I stowed my bags in the overhead compartment, settled into my seat and waited for the airplane doors to close and our trip to begin. And waited. And waited.

I didn't know it, but Heathrow's unionized ground crews, seeking a pay increase, had picked that day to show their muscle by staging a slowdown. Their ploy was simple: Keep finding ways to delay fueling our plane.

Out of my window, I could see other planes pull away from the gate and taxi out to the runway while ours sat unmoving. After about an hour, I started asking questions and learned that only British Airways--the airline I was flying--was the target of the slowdown.

The airline, however, came up with a plan to circumvent the labor action: Our plane had enough fuel aboard to fly to Shannon, Ireland. We would fly there to refuel for the long transatlantic flight.

Great idea . . . except the ground crews devised a countermove: Suddenly there were no tractors available to pull our plane away from the gate. By this time, we were well into our second hour of sitting in the plane at the gate, and the flight attendants decided that if they couldn't close the door, they'd open the galley. Why not? We obviously weren't going anywhere.

So we nibbled on lunch while another hour passed. Finally, the ground crews decided they had made their point. They agreed to refuel the plane. We would shortly be on our way; the impasse was broken.

Wonderful! Except for a spinoff problem. Regulations forbid cockpit crews from working more than a specified number of hours, and the delay had eaten so much of our crew's time that they could no longer be on duty for the nine hours required to fly to Miami.

British Airways came up with another solution. We would fly to Toronto, a much shorter run, where another crew would take over and fly us to Miami. Done! Three and a half hours after I boarded the plane, our 747 finally pulled away from the gate.

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Airborne at last, we gabbed excitedly to each other. Sure, because of the delay in London and our circuitous route, we wouldn't get to Miami until midnight. But so what? We were on the way home!

The flight to Toronto was uneventful, and the airline had spent the time we were in the air rounding up a crew to fly us to Miami. There was one hitch: British Airways had been unable to reach the captain who was to fly the plane. Believing he was off duty for a couple of days, he'd gone fishing somewhere in the Canadian wilds. No captain, no flight.

Desperately, airline officials contacted their Washington base, where a captain was available. He could fly to Toronto in a couple of hours on another airline to take command of our flight. Of course, that meant we'd have to wait around in Toronto for another few hours, but eventually we'd be on our way to Miami.

All this was relayed to us passengers, some of whom voiced their displeasure in rather strident terms. And who could blame them? We had been on this airplane for close to 12 hours. We were all tired, especially the children, who were crying and irritable. Still, we clung to the hope that in just a few hours, we'd reach our destination. British had located a captain in Washington who was ready and willing to come to Toronto, but the weather wasn't cooperating. Washington was having severe thunderstorms, and both incoming and outgoing flights were being canceled.

It became apparent that there was no way our relief captain was going to make it to Toronto. So around midnight the airline gave up and arranged for all of us to be taken to an airport hotel. We would leave the next morning at 8 a.m.

The next morning, rested and raring to go, we trooped back on the plane. We all cheered when the captain came on board; he was the same one who had flown us over the Atlantic. The overnight time off had made him legal to fly us; the captain from Washington never did make it to Toronto.

I settled into my now familiar seat and waited for the door to close.

It didn't.

After 20 minutes or so, the captain came on the intercom to inform us, very apologetically, that the plane had a mechanical problem. Something was wrong with an aileron, the pilot-controlled airfoil near the edge of the wing, and they couldn't fix it immediately. They would have to fly a part in from Montreal, and that would take at least two hours.

The plane erupted in anger. Red-faced passengers accosted flight attendants, screaming and gesticulating. Children, frightened by the commotion, began crying. A flight attendant I had talked to before, standing at the door, looked apprehensively at the enraged passengers and said, "We may have to call the police."

After a bit the commotion subsided. What could we do? In any case, we figured the airline could probably fix this plane faster than it could arrange for a substitute. Two or three hours later, we'd still had no word about the status of our repair, so I approached the same flight attendant and asked how the work was progressing.

He frowned, then said to me very quietly, "The part came in a half hour ago." He cast an apprehensive glance at the passengers sitting quietly in the cabin. "It's the wrong part."

That was the last straw. I couldn't fault British Airways; it had tried its best to solve every problem as it came up, but I decided our flight was unalterably jinxed.

The cockpit crew hadn't informed the other passengers of the situation, and I had no desire to be around when they did. I quietly gathered my carry-on bags and made my way inside the terminal to the Eastern Air Lines desk, at that time, one of main American carriers serving Toronto.

"I don't care where you fly, so long as it's in the general direction of Miami," I told the Eastern agent. "Just get me out of here."

The line's Miami flights already had departed, so the best he could do was put me on a flight to Tampa. I would have to wait in Tampa for 2 1/2 hours for a flight to Miami, and I would have to pick up my checked luggage whenever the British Airways plane got there, but anything looked good.

I had to wait in Toronto a couple of hours for my flight, but when I finally boarded the plane, there was no delay. We got to Tampa on time, and my continuing flight to Miami also went without a hitch.

At eight o'clock in the evening, 38 hours after I boarded the plane in London, I finally set foot in Miami.

The British Airways 747 I left in Toronto never did make it to Miami. The line finally chartered an Air Canada plane, transferred the baggage into it, and flew the bedraggled passengers to Miami. They arrived a half-hour after I did.

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