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Mechanical Problems

Our flight follows the Pacific Coastline along Northern California on a clear day. Unlike most recent flights, half the seats are empty. I settled in for the 3+ hour flight, pleased that Mark and I had an empty seat between us. Twenty minutes after takeoff, the pilot’s voice comes over the PA System.

“Folks, we are returning to SFO. Unfortunately, one of the flaps on the airplane is not retracting. I know that everyone is looking forward to getting to Puerto Vallarta, but this plane will be out of commission. First and foremost is your safety; we apologize for this inconvenience. We’ll provide more information as it becomes available.”

The lady across the aisle has a scowl on her face. “Great,” she says with sarcasm, “we won’t get to Puerto Vallarta today; this will ruin my vacation.”

I’m feeling a bit more upbeat. “Let’s hope they’ll get another plane, and we can be on our way in two or three hours.”

My optimism does not lighten her mood; she says nothing, holding on to her angry look.

The plane landed smoothly, and passengers applauded, something common in other countries but not the United States. I feel great relief. Yes, plane accidents are rare and we have a far greater chance of being in a car accident headed to the airport. Still, knowing that does not ease my mind before or during any flight I’ve ever taken.

I get two texts while our plane is waiting for our gate to be available – one from United, the other from my TripIt App: Flight 1212 is now departing from a new gate in 40 minutes. As I hoped, a new plane pressed into action. That information is confirmed -- as we exit the flight we are directed to the new gate at SFO. We arrive in Puerto Vallarta a couple of hours behind schedule. The woman’s scowl has lifted.

Two months ago, returning from Egypt, we encountered mechanical problems on the Frankfurt – San Francisco flight. The 300+ passengers on the Boeing 777 were settled in their seats and ready for takeoff when the Captain announced a short delay as a cargo hold door was not closing. After a half hour, we were told the delay would be several hours, and we were instructed to deplane. We were informed we’d be given a voucher for lunch and to please return to the gate area for further instructions. One other complication: because of the delay, our flight would stop in the DC area at Dulles Airport to take on a new crew, as the current crew would be exceeding the permissible number of hours on duty by then. Instead of arriving in San Francisco at 4 pm, we’d arrive shortly after midnight. Audible groans from the passengers. Those with SFO as a final destination should stay put until further notice. Passengers with connecting flights in San Francisco were directed to speak to a gate agent about possible booking on other flights.

The line to get a meal voucher exceeded a hundred people. Mark and I headed directly to the eatery closest to the gate, we pay for our lunch. When we returned to the gate, we learned the flight had been canceled, and a new flight would take us from Frankfurt to San Francisco the following afternoon. Be patient, we were told, as more agents would soon be available to explain the plans. Additional United employees with iPads arrived, flashing us QR codes with information about overnight hotel arrangements and instructions to get to the bus taking us to our hotel. Thanks to technology, the airline turns over their “what to do with stranded passengers on disrupted flights” to Layover Solutions, which handles the logistics.

The United personnel conveyed all this information in English and German. If you didn’t speak either, you were at the mercy of other travelers or United employees who spoke additional languages. No matter what country you are from, knowing English is very valuable.

I noticed a woman having an animated conversation on her cell in a language other than English, then handing over the phone to a United employee, who spoke English to the person at the other end of the line and handed the phone back to the woman. As my spouse was waiting for wheelchair assistance, which would get us through immigration and to the bus taking us to the hotel, the gate agent turned to us and asked, "can she join you? She doesn’t speak English or German, and I don’t want her to get lost."

We introduced ourselves, and I guessed correctly that Agnieszka was from Poland. We could communicate thanks to a translation app that I use, DeepL.

A fleet of buses transported us to the hotel, which was a good 45 minutes from the airport. Imagine several hundred people trying to check in simultaneously; the line snaked outside the hotel onto the street: by then, it was early evening, and a drizzle had started. The hotel provided a few umbrellas, which people shared.  As the hotel restaurant did not serve dinner, we were to get our dinner through a meal voucher available via an App (think DoorDash). The lobby was abuzz with activity, some people just checking in as other passengers were already getting their food delivered.

Like many others, I couldn’t make heads or tails of the App. Fortunately, you could opt for the English version, which was of marginal help. Many of the younger travelers, mostly Americans of varying ethnic/racial backgrounds, set about teaching their elders how to use the App and helping us order our dinners. Passengers picking up their orders at the lobby generously offered pizza slices to those still waiting in line for a room.

The following morning, the hotel restaurant provided a hearty breakfast, and people in the dining room chatted in different groups and welcomed others to join their table. Since the bus pick-up was mid-morning, I had free time to explore the neighborhood on foot. It was not a residential area but rather a warehouse/commercial zone with car repair shops, a bike store, a beautiful garden store that was a feast to the eyes, and one eating establishment that offered food from all over the world, reflecting the multicultural city that Frankfurt has become.

The return trip to San Francisco was uneventful. Hugs, smiles, phone numbers, and email addresses were exchanged as folks parted ways at the airport. It is always uplifting to see expressions of kindness.

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