What’s Worse Than Flying United to Hong Kong? Sitting on United Over 16 Hours and Going Nowhere

When I was 5 years old some of my family moved to Australia. As a result Australia was my first foreign country – the reason for my first passport — and it’s one of the countries I’ve visited most often.

On my first solo trip as an adult post-college I flew United business class on an award ticket. It never actually occurred to me to book first class. (The next year I gave my grandmother a first class award on United, that’s when the idea first dawned on me.)

I flew United Washington Dulles – Los Angeles – Sydney and return. The Sydney – Los Angeles flight back was uneventful however Los Angeles – Washington Dulles turned out to be a flight which took just as long.

  • Bad weather across the middle of the country caused us to route to Florida and up the East Coast
  • By the time we got to the DC area Dulles was closed due to weather
  • We circled until we were running out of fuel, so we diverted to Richmond
  • But they didn’t have equipment there that could refuel a Boeing 777, they called the fire department for a ladder tall enough
  • We spent several hours on the ground. No one was let off the aircraft, though we could easily have driven home
  • When we did get back to Dulles baggage claim took over an hour

And yet that United flight was a cakewalk compared to United flight UA179 on Saturday. And I can’t even imagine passengers sitting in coach.

United’s Newark – Hong Kong flight diverted to Goose Bay on Saturday for a medical emergency and that’s when things went bad.

The plane went mechanical and passengers had to stay on the aircraft overnight because there were no customs agents available.

The airline believes cold weather caused a door on the plane to malfunction, preventing takeoff. Happy Valley-Goose Bay is currently grappling with an extreme cold warning issued by Environment Canada, with temperatures dipping below -30 C.

Temperatures on the plane quickly plummeted to “uncomfortable” levels, said passenger Sonjay Dutt, a professional wrestler en route to Hong Kong for a show.

Here’s video that was smuggled off the aircraft that does a pretty good job of telling the whole story:

Eventually mechanics made their way to try to fix the door, to no avail.

The flight even opened its own twitter account.

Despite traveling for longer than it takes to get to Hong Kong passengers aren’t going anywhere, they’re headed right back to where they started — Newark. And as of this writing they aren’t even there yet, though they’re close.

I’ve tried to come up with anything worse in the world than traveling for more than an entire day on United Airlines, not getting where you’re going, and winding up in Newark. The closest I’ve been able to come is flying United as a dog.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. You know what’s even worse? Dying. There was a mechanical issue and the plane had to be landed. Everything they’re going through is preferable to not being alive.

    Also even for you this is a terrible headline.

  2. How about the only worse than not getting your destination safely is not getting there safely. This is the type of self entitled whining that defines people like you. The crew is doing their very best and is also on the aircraft in the same conditions. For a blog that is aviation related, you ought to have a modicum of understanding from the other perspective. Safety is the number on every priority and if the flight isn’t delayed or returns that is terrible but hurting one person is even worse. I’m sorry your sensitivities were hurt but you arrived safely at your destination, you should thank the crew.

  3. Doesn’t the reaction time violate ETOPS regulations? My understanding is that ETOPS regulations discusses provisions for remote airport diversions, having food and other provisions available, and “rescuing” stranded passengers in a timely manner.

  4. The issue is not the diversion it is the inability to get off the aircraft. Try being stuck on a grounded plane for 13 hours. Waiting in the terminal is bad enough but stuck on the plane. Someone needed to make a decision to help the passengers. Officials at Goose Bay needed to do something. Blame them more than United.

  5. No one said “this is the worst thing that could possibly exist.” You know what’s worse than dying? 6 million people dying. But that’s a non-sequitur.

    And no one blamed the crew.

  6. Agreed below average airline to fly even before you add in the list of issues
    Certainly no premium cabin @United
    Well at least their not bloody !

  7. I’d be interested to know how much $ the pax get from Customer Care, specified by status. A couple of grand might make me happy.

  8. It appears that fact-checking is not required for bloggers. This flight was operated on a former CO 777, which means it’s 9 across in economy, not 10. That 1 less seats than AA 777 coach with 10 seats across.

    Also, the diversion was due to MEDICAL EMERGENCY! I guess Gary would rather have the passenger expire in-flight instead of ruining his flight.

  9. What’s with everybody ganging up on Gary.

    What happened on this flight is ridiculous and Gary is absolutely spot on in his analysis.

    There’s nothing entitled about not wanting to be stuck in a motionless tube for 16 hours.

    Also this situation is a great example of why border/customs controls are inhuman. Im not saying open all borders asap, I am saying we are way too uptight and need to relax the laws. We are all one species, and our politicians should cut out the fucking nonsense.

  10. So they send another airplane (makes sense), but they DON’T CONTINUE THE FLIGHT TO DESTINATION? What kind of an airline is this?? Unbelievable

  11. It seems there should be some way for a Justin Trudeau to declare an emergency and decide there aren’t any terrorists aboard who are likely to have accomplices in Goose Bay awaiting that diversion so they can slip away and launch their operation. Let the people off the plane to stay in a hotel, or at least somewhere warm.

  12. Great combination: Canuckleheads & United. A combined IQ of 5 and not one pair of balls between them to make a command decision to relieve scores from a horrible 16+ hour ordeal.

  13. It never ceases to amaze me how little common sense surrounds immigration processing. We have millions of illegals (Canada has plenty too) that are permitted to stay but heaven forbid we unload a plane and allow the poor passengers to spend the night in a hotel or shelter before resuming their journey. How many will fail to show and sneakaway? I’m betting zero.

    This one is on Canada, not United.

  14. What if the crew just said the h*** with the Canadian government and evacuated the plane on the ground. What could they do? Also UA does not appear to have robust enough procedures including contingency plans for dealing with customs and immigration. They should run through a diaster preparedness type exercise like this regularly and figure out how you would accommodate passengers under this or even worse circumstances.

  15. Would be interesting to understand what the reasons were to disallow this. I can understand the weather would be a bitch. The terminal may also not be large enough to allow so many pax to be seated airside.
    Am assuming, that flight crew work time regulations would not allow the second plan to continue the flight onwards. Till then, lets outrage!!!!!

  16. No – what’s worse is people like Gary on that flight to be able to come back and use it for propaganda and provacative drama. I’m not very loyal to United but doubt if they could’ve done anything better if an International Destination Immigration facilities were closed.

  17. Actually, delays like this used to be in the news quite frequently in the USA until they passed a rule. I was in several planes that were delayed 3 plus hours on the Tarmac back in the day, luckily not all night.

    “Under the 2009 law, airlines are required to provide water, food and access to bathrooms during long delays and must let passengers on domestic flights exit the plane if the delay on the tarmac lasts at least three hours. … Airlines can be fined as much as $27,500 for every passenger who is stranded.” Per Google search, quoting Mar 23, 2018 Seattle Times.

    Not sure why so many people are ragging on Gary. I think his blog promotes air travel overall.

  18. Worldwide, there is an average of 100.000 commercial flights, every day

    Flight Diversion due to technical reasons, weather conditions, or many other reasons happens on a regular basis

    The most important mission of an Airline is to fly safely and take good care of the passengers, the crew, and the plane

  19. Gary, including the “Alive” video was over the top. I’ve never laughed so much at one of your posts. I surprised someone hasn’t posted their outrage believing you were serious about it.

  20. I’ll stir the pot. That plane was on a nice flat earth path. These emergency landings really expose the lies

  21. Diversions to Newfoundland airports are not uncommon. My AA LHR DFW flight had a medical diversion a while back. Because of their remote location they are the landing spots of first or last resort depending on direction of travel. The answer is for joint USA / Canada investment in secure stopover facilities where basic shelter, food and services are available to deplaned pax without having to undergo customs clearance. I say joint USA investment because most pax in this Canadian airspace originate / terminate in USA. Everyone’s best interests are served.

  22. Why can’t they get off the aircraft? It’s not like the PAX are going to attack the country.

  23. “I’ve tried to come up with anything worse in the world than traveling for more than an entire day on United Airlines, not getting where you’re going, and winding up in Newark. The closest I’ve been able to come is flying United as a dog.”

    The whole article was worth that great closing line! Bravo.

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