A sold-out Delta flight from Anchorage to Minneapolis-St. Paul on a Boeing 757-200 airplane accommodates 184 passengers. (I know this because I looked it up.) Such was the case last Monday as Phil and I were returning from our trip to Anchorage and Denali National Park.
We had enjoyed our mini-vacation, despite rainy weather that precluded seeing either Mount McKinley or the aurora borealis. We were able to fit quite a bit into a four-and-a-half day stay, carefully sandwiched between major responsibilities back home. Phil had several meetings scheduled at work on Tuesday, while I looked forward to a day to unpack, do laundry and decompress before an evening school board meeting and medical appointments for my mother-in-law on Wednesday.
At the Anchorage airport, we declined an offer to trade our seats for future airline travel vouchers and stumbled – along with 182 equally bleary-eyed traveling companions – onto the 6 a.m. flight. I scooted into the window seat, Phil folded his 6’4” frame into the middle seat, and we settled in for the first leg of our trek home. Flight 1084 was scheduled to be airborne just under five and a half hours. With three flights, two layovers and the loss of three hours crossing time zones, we anticipated arriving home around 10 p.m.
About the time we expected the announcement that it was safe to move about the aircraft, we instead heard, “If there is a medical doctor on the flight, please make yourself known to the flight crew.” As a doctor arrived from first class, the rest of us were asked to remain in our seats.
The doctor and several flight attendants converged on a man situated across the aisle and five rows or so ahead of our Row 39 seats. We overheard snippets of conversation about chest pain and headache. The doctor started an IV, and had a flight attendant fetch an oxygen tank.
The remainder of the flight attendants gamely attended to the rest of the passengers, bringing beverages two by two from the galley. I could see a wide-open drip from the IV bag, which was hanging from a suitcase handle in the overhead bin. As soon as it was finished, a new bag was started.
About midway through both the flight and a third bag of fluids, the captain informed us that the flight would be diverted for a medical emergency. Edmonton, Alberta was the nearest airport and passengers would need to remain in their seats while the medical crew transported the patient. Since it was an unscheduled stop in a foreign country, nobody could leave the plane.
About 15 minutes the plane made a bumpy landing in Edmonton. We could see an ambulance and a fire truck waiting at the terminal. A team of EMTs entered the plane and tended to the man. I was relieved to hear him respond to their questions. He complained of a headache, fatigue and dizziness, but no chest pain at that time. The EMTs moved him to a gurney. I expected him to be an elderly gentleman, but from the back, he appeared to be in his 40s.
The passengers applauded as he was taken off the airplane. The captain thanked us for our patience and assured us that we would be back in the air as soon as possible.
An hour passed. The plane started to get warm and stuffy. The flight attendants served beverages again, more efficiently this time since they were able to utilize their carts.
The captain made another announcement to explain the delay. First, because we were only halfway through our flight, the plane had not burned all of its fuel and we landed overweight. A mechanic would have to inspect the plane to approve it for takeoff. Second, the onboard oxygen that had been used would have to be replaced before departure. He did not know how long it would take, but hoped we would be back in the air shortly as he knew that many passengers were worried about making their connections.
Our seatmate, George, was one of them. On her way back to Buffalo, New York, she had just a 45-minute layover in Minneapolis. She was worried about how the delay would affect her dog, traveling in the cargo hold.
The flight attendants distributed headsets and started some TV episodes on the overhead screens. Another hour passed. Following a series of apologies, the captain made the welcome announcement that passengers would be allowed to deplane, as long as we stayed in the immediate terminal area. Otherwise we would officially enter Canada and would be required to clear customs to reboard the airplane. We would have access to restrooms and an area to stretch our legs, but no shops or restaurants.
There were, however, friendly and helpful airport personnel, free wifi, plenty of charging stations, and sunshine. Phil and I caught up on e-mail and Facebook.
Flight attendants set up an area to arrange alternate connecting flights. George talked to the ground crew, who took her dog for a walk. Some passengers made calls to explain delays or reschedule meetings and appointments. Phil called our eldest daughter to apprise her of our delay. Delta brought in bottled soda, water and juice, and sandwiches for a lucky few.
Finally a mechanic approved the plane for takeoff, an FAA-approved oxygen canister was located, and the passengers reboarded the plane. By the time we arrived in Minneapolis, we were five hours behind schedule and the sun was setting.
As we waited in yet another line for hotel and meal vouchers and tickets for flights the next day, a woman behind us remarked that this was a lot of trouble caused by an idiot not taking proper care of himself. “What?” I asked, “I thought it was a heart attack.” She had been seated within a couple of rows of the man and heard all of the conversations with the doctor on board and the EMTs in Edmonton. Turns out it was not a heart attack at all. He had taken too much Dramamine on an empty stomach.
Seriously? He overdosed on Dramamine? I couldn’t begin to calculate the cost of our diverted flight. Nearly 200 people were affected, most of whom had missed a connecting flight and were spending the night in Minneapolis at Delta’s expense (although without checked luggage). How many seats went unfilled on missed flights? How many passengers, including at least one physician on board, would miss a day of work? . . . important appointments or meetings? . . . a special event with family or friends?
While I am aggravated that this man inconvenienced a lot of people, I am also relieved that he was not seriously ill. I am also grateful not to be in his position: hospitalized in a foreign country, possibly without a passport. I have no idea what kind of arrangements had to be made to get him home. Canada offers national health care to its residents, but does that extend to foreigners? If not, he may be facing a whopping out-of-network expense.
Although Phil missed a day of work and I missed a school board meeting, there was a bright spot in our delay. My brother lives in the Twin Cities and Phil and I were able to meet him and his wife for lunch. Our remaining flights were uneventful and we arrived home exactly 24 hours after we anticipated. Our kids survived the extra day just fine and we have an extra story from our vacation.
And the moral of the story is: know your medications. Read the package directions even if it is over the counter and you’ve taken it successfully a million times before. Keep the drama out of Dramamine.