The Unluckiest Flight on New Year’s Eve: United San Francisco – Sydney

United’s San Francisco – Sydney flight on New Year’s Eve encountered problems. And once it did, it just couldn’t catch a break.

  • Crew reported smoke in the cockpit when the flight was 600 nautical miles south of Kona, Hawaii. So they decided to divert.

  • The smoke and fumes dissipated and they decided to divert to Honolulu instead.

    A passenger reported that obviously there was some fire, quite obviously there was smoke in the cockpit. The inflight entertainment system and cabin lights went out, an announcement indicated they were diverting to Kona. The fire apparently was put out, the passengers in the forward cabin were distributed to the aft cabin with cabin crew telling them the seats in the forward cabin could no longer be put upright for landing. Some time later the crew advised that they were now diverting to Honolulu.

  • Just prior to touchdown in Honolulu the Boeing 777 suffered a bird strike

It was New Year’s Day at this point. The next day the pilot refused the aircraft for continuing on to Sydney. So United sent replacement aircraft.

Two Boeing 777-200s registrations N206UA and N221UA have been dispatched to Honolulu to continue the flight as flights UA-2102 and UA-2103. UA-2102 is estimated to reach Sydney with a delay of 36.5 hours, UA-2103 is estimated to arrive in Sydney with a delay of 46 hours.

The occurrence aircraft is still on the ground in Honolulu 31 hours after landing (standing Jan 2nd 2016 20:40z).

If nothing else, the passengers had a memorable New Year’s Eve. And they weren’t going to spend New Year’s Day in Sydney anyway, since the December 31 late night departure was originally scheduled to arrive the morning of January 2 anyway…!

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. Wow I sure wish I had saved up for YEARS to finally cash in all my Frequent Piechart coinage on that Expeditiion.

    Just think about the people who Paid like upwards of 5 k for the “privilege’ .

    Entire Industry is out of control

  2. They will get compensated well. And they spent a day in Hawaii. And when faced with self mortality, women tend to lower their inhibitions. I bet the guys are raving about this trip.

  3. I thought the 777s were supposed to be more reliable than the 747s? Hah!

    Seriously, diverting to HNL is a far better outcome than most, i.e. Greenland.

  4. I believe that there is no plane flying today more reliable than the 747. It is interesting how many problems there are in flying these days. A lot of cabin smoke, etc. United seems to have more than most. Could it be a reflection on their shoddy maintenance?

  5. blacksheep: Based on review of flyertalk threads last year, it does appear that United has somehow cut back on maintenance of their aircraft, or doing it poorly, or something. Their maintenance issues are becoming endemic, definitely much worse than Delta, and appears to be worse than American. This thread shows some days with multiple international cancellations for maintenance.

  6. Andy & Paul, being in HNL would not be good on a layover since there are no hotels at the airport and all the passengers would have to be bused over to one off the airport property. Try and get a coach on a holiday for 250+ unhappy holiday travelers. There was no way UA would put them up in the tourist section at $$$$ prices.

  7. @tomri — That’s why you don’t wait in line to see an agent only to have UA book you a room at the local Red Roof Inn. Book something reasonable yourself and fax them the bill.

  8. I was on this flight and can perhaps shed some further light.
    At no point did any of the staff give any indication that this was anything other than a routine precaution, so there was no panic or concern that I saw from any of the passengers. Annoyance and anger yes, but panic no. So, as a side note to ‘credit’ who posted above about mortality and inhibitions etc. I just have to say, don’t be a dick.
    Anyway, just prior to landing at HNL we were advised that we would be given accommodation but after about 40mins at the arrival gate we were told that there was no accommodation available (makes sense cos it was NYE. Well, actually it was ~4:30am New Year’s Day) but if we wanted to find our own we could. In the mean time the crew brought blankets, pillows, food and drink off the aircraft and freely distributed them to passengers. I managed to find myself a room in a nearby hotel and get a late checkout so I got a comfy 7hrs sleep before spending the afternoon/evening in Honolulu. Our rescheduled flight was 11pm that night so I got back to the airport about 8pm, had to collect and recheck my luggage (it wasn’t available for me to take that morning) and head back to the same gate. We all had to show our passports again before being able to enter the gate lounge but I think this was as an excuse to also hand us all an apology letter. Anyway, boarding commenced late at around 11pm and was stopped about 2/3rds through. 15 mins later was an announcement that the captain had smelled the same mechanical burning smell as the previous night and so they were getting an engineer to come and look at it. 10mins after that the already boarded passengers were deplaned and another 15mins after that the flight was cancelled. Interestingly, my United app on my phone gave me the cancellation notification a good 2 minutes before the ground crew were advised.
    United was able to secure accommodation this time but the process seemed to be taking forever, so I asked if I could source my own again and was given the go ahead along with a return cab charge to cover the fare to Waikiki. This time we had to collect our luggage so I did that and was outta there in a flash! Pretty sure everyone else would have had at least another 2hrs to wait at the pace they were going.
    We were all auto booked on a 2pm flight the next day but I chose to change that to the 11pm flight instead because a) it was virtually empty and the 2pm flight was chock full, b) it gave me another full day in paradise and c) I was in no hurry to get home.
    All up, even though it was a bit concerning, it really was the best delay ever and the flight crew did an awesome job at underplaying the seriousness of the situation while looking after us. And I’m very happy the Captain refused to take off the next day. Much better to be delayed a bit longer than be lost at sea!
    Since then I have been reimbursed for my accommodation and been given a travel voucher as ‘compensation’. 2 days in Hawaii for free and a travel voucher = one happy little vegemite right here.

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