American Airlines London Passengers Make Day Long Journey To Nowhere

Thursday night’s Philadelphia – London Heathrow flight 728 became a day long journey to nowhere all day Friday as the aircraft, first delayed for three hours, finally took off in the wee hours of Friday morning before making it nearly halfway over the Atlantic… and turning around.

When a passenger had a medical emergency, the plane made a u-turn and headed for Gander in Newfoundland, Canada.

Passengers reported no food and water on the ground, though after several hours water was provided. Very limited seating was available. Eventually after much of the day there they returned to Philadelphia. And to make matters worse from the perspective of those on board maybe the whole ordeal was unnecessary?

@dikane2 #americanairlines #stranded ♬ original sound – Diane Kane

The plane wasn’t all the way halfway across the Atlantic, and the crew and airline are working with limited information.

  • If a medical situation presents that could be life-threatening, they need to seek medical care right away.

  • If a passenger situation presents that could be a danger to the aircraft, they may want to be on the ground as soon as possible.

But they’re dealing with uncertainties. How bad is the medical issue? They get guidance from the ground. How risky is this passenger? It may be that this diversion wasn’t necessary, but no airline wants to divert. It’s not just a bad customer experience, it’s expensive. There’s wasted staff time and fuel, they still need to fly these passengers (or refund them), and it may mean cancelling other flights too.

At the same time it does seem like there were real failures at the airline. Very little was communicated to passengers. Sometimes, facing a real threat, you want to limit communication. You also want to limit panic. And you’ll turn off the moving map blaming a technical issue so that everyone on board remains (relatively) in the dark. But absent that, there likely wasn’t enough communication early. And then even in the middle of the night it’s incumbent on a major world airline to be prepared to receive passengers at primary diversion airports.

Gander is no stranger to diverted planes. A Tony Award-winning Broadway musical (“Come From Away”) was even written about Gander diversions. Thirty eight planes with over 7,000 passengers landed there on 9/11 when aircraft were ordered to the ground. Residents of the town housed and fed the passengers. Continental Airlines used to run so many transatlantic flights with Boeing 757s which couldn’t make the trip Westbound across the Pond in significant headwinds that the carrier used to be said to operate a hub at Gander.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Not certain about all this but didn’t someone once say
    “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander”
    Sounds like :
    To many AA geese flying the plane and making flock (snap) decisions

  2. The family of the person with the medical emergency as well as that fellow traveler himself are probably quite thankful. We should be, too, for them. Thanks AA.

  3. In these cases airlines NEVER make decisions what is good for
    250+ customers, only what is good (cheapest) for them.

    If it’s a maintenance problem one could argue that it makes sense
    to return to a base… but that is not the case here.

    Like derek mentions – what’s so hard about flying another crew to London?

  4. Turning off the moving map is not useful when we all have GPS equipped phones, no cell signal needed, it just takes longer to get a lock on location.

  5. Certified,

    What good is a lock without a map? It’s not as if your iPhone spews our coordinates to the screen.

  6. I’m wondering if there are any passengers who can’t re-enter the US, and how the airline would handle them.

  7. I read this and I’m kind of mystified. These things do happen. Thus isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Did people eventually get to London? What was the medical diversion? Why was the flight originally so late? There’s a lot of info missing from this “article”. You’d think a “thought leader” would bring more information to a piece such as this. Honestly I have no idea what really happened. Next time do more research and stop wasting everybody’s time with yet *another* complaint rant about AA

  8. I’m exhausted and I wasn’t even on board! Not picking on AA but this seems to be happening often. It’s flight roulette with any of the airlines.

  9. Just like TSA checks for criminal background, the airlines should screen for high risk passengers with health conditions both mental and physical with a simple questionnaire before buying your ticket. Although that may be a medical record privacy issue.

  10. What an entitled snot. The tables were plastic. I’ve been kidnapped. I’m afraid of moose and maple syrup. Whatever the core truth is, the crew doesn’t get a thrill diverting anywhere.

  11. Pilots do get information from not only dedicated medical experts on the ground but also doctors and medical professionals that may be on board the plane. These decisions are not taken lightly. One can never be certain whether a medical diversion is absolutely necessary. But I think we all agree that preserving a life is worth the inconvenience.

  12. The worst part about this is airlines not at least feeding, watering and lodging their passengers during an ordeal like that.

  13. Same thing happened to me in 1979 on a TWA 747 LAX/LHR. Heart attack, plane landed in Gander, they had difficulty deplaning the passenger but it ended OK and we took off…for London. After t/o pilot announced that this diversion had cost TWA 20K.

  14. I have personally attended to three in-flight calls for medical personnel and a possible medical emergency. By way of explanation, I’m an emergency physician.

    In all cases, the crew is totally reliant on the information the captain receives from the medical personnel on board (if any), and all airlines have a ground-based physician they can consult.

    I’ve been involved in situations where a medical professional is completely out of their league. For instance, in one of my responses, I went to the back of the airplane to see a gentleman kneeling next to the “patient.” I introduced myself and identified as an emergency physician. He said, “Oh, thank God. I’m an ophthalmologist… you’ve got this!” and returned to his seat. In all fairness, he did offer to help, but it was me, a critical care physician and a critical care nurse.

    Ultimately, the captain will make the best decision based on what the medical experts (in-flight and ground-based) tell them. I certainly don’t blame him or her for diverting. Once in Gander, I’m guessing the crew probably timed out and couldn’t fly back to PHL. However, AA needs to do a much better job with crisis management. Don’t the ETOPS regulations require they have a response plan in the event of a diversion? Doesn’t sound like AA did. It isn’t like Gander isn’t a popular diversion point — I’ve been there myself to get fuel.

  15. I was on that flight. I totally understand why the plane was diverted and hope the passenger is ok.
    When in Gander, not 1 AA employee was to be seen or nothing communicated to the other passengers from AA. The staff at Gander were excellent but there were people lying on the floor, elderly and children.
    Passengers kept the morale high though.
    The biggest disappointment was when arriving back at PHL. We were made to go back out through border control, collect checked in luggage and que for hours only to be issued a new boarding pass. Hotels has been organised but there was no point as by the time you got the new boarding pass it was not long that we had to then check in the luggage at 4am. Many decided to stay at the airport. Seeing children, the elderly and others trying to get a few hours sleep on the floor in Terminal A. Once again no real response from AA with assistance of food or drink apart from a meal voucher which only allowed you to use at around 6am when the airport restaurants opened.
    When getting back onto the flight, it was the same aircraft so not sure why they put all the passengers through that. We would have preffered to stay in Gander and fly from there to LHR. Not sure why AA decided to send us back to PHL and put the passengers through that experience.

  16. I’m due to cross pond eight days time not looking good as connecting flight already cancelled from las Angles with six hour delay
    On the other hand lots of diversions of plains over last few weeks from all over world possibly new cabin procedures with passengers who take ill you would hope they will do the best for yourselves at end of day just

  17. I’ve made around 240-250 Trans-Atlantic roundtrips over my lifetime. Once, in 1992, I was on a TWA flight from Paris to JFK. They were in bankruptcy and we hit headwinds and ran out of fuel. We landed (but I think it wasn’t Gander) and it took 3 hours for TWA to wire cash to the fuel supplier before we could get fueled up to continue to JFK. The second time I was diverted to Canada (this time Gander) was around 10 December 1995 on a British Airways flight LHR-BOS following my trip to the summit of Kilimanjaro — Boston airport was shut because of a blizzard and ALL trans-Atlantic flights were landing in Gandar. I was never so grateful to be in a business class seat on that flight. We finally deplaned and overnighted around 1-2 am. I shouldn’t laugh at the other lady’s misfortune but if she thinks it is hideous today, she should be grateful that she wasn’t there with me in 1995!

  18. How does she know the captain did not make an announcement if she says when she woke up maybe he didn’t make the announcement and she was just sleeping?

  19. @Theresa Bertidge Are there new cabin procedures relating to diverting flights? Are there now more diversions than there were in the past? Are the new procedures for all airlines, or just US airlines?

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