Monday, June 25, 2007

Bomb Scare In The Air

Yup, I was on that United flight diverted because of a “suspicious device”. And here’s the secret that wasn’t revealed on the 6 o’clock news – it was a broken calculator. I know, because the bloke that found it was in the window seat next to where I was sitting.

First off, United began the day swimmingly by posting that the departure of UA292, SFO to MCO (Orlando) would be about 35 minutes late because the in-bound was held up somewhere. Alas, they subsequently forgot to mention in the Red Carpet club that,rather than hanging around waiting for it to show, United had instead found another 757 stuck down the back of the sofa and given us that one to play with. Just by luck I happened by the monitors and saw that the departure time had been set back to 2:51 pm again. Excellent – just time to collect my stuff up and head off, arriving at the gate right as it was boarding.

Some 10 minutes after I had sat down, the guy in the window seat shows up all hot and sweaty, as no one had told him either that it was back on track and now leaving on time. Anyway, some 35 minutes late (so yes, we were now leaving when the original, delayed plane was supposed to) we were ready to take off.

A few minutes after we were airborne, man-in-window-seat (MIWS) asks me if I have a screwdriver about my person. Well, actually, no, being as how TSA tends to frown on such things these days. He then shows me something he found in the seat pocket in front of him. I take a look, and it was a small, thin calculator with a diary function included, but one that clearly wasn’t working anymore. He took it back, stared at it for a bit and then called the stewardess. At this point, I knew we were screwed; even more so when he explained what he had found as follows: “Excuse me, but I found this in the seat pocket. None of the buttons work, it’s set to the wrong date and the back’s scuffed-up.” Nice going, Sherlock.

Stewardess trots off towards the pointy end of the plane and returns a couple of minutes later to re-check his story, and presumably to see if he’d donned a turban and grown a beard. Finding nothing amiss with Mr. MIWS, off she trots once more, and then comes back and restarts the drinks service. Could sanity prevail? Hell no.

Next up, some bloke in an embroidered shirt and a fashionable beard shows up and starts the questioning thing all over again on Mr. MIWS. Where did you find it? Who are you? Who are you travelling with? He was clearly one of the air marshals that now travel the friendly skies on a regular basis, and for once actually found something to do.

Things drag on for a bit, and then the real fun begins. The video system is shutdown and the stewardesses all run around collecting headphones and blankets like, well, like they were suddenly worth something for a start. One then came on the intercom and started waffling about “certain procedures” and “we’ll get through this with teamwork”, the latter phrase which she then repeats multiple times over the next ten minutes. (By the time we landed she seemed almost on the verge of hysteria, her voice starting to crack.)

Next up, the cleared the back four rows and made the displaced passengers sit in rows further forward. “OK”, you may say, “so what?” Well, alas, the flight was full and so they had to perch in between existing passengers, almost none of which had the faintest idea why this was happening. Indeed, all this time there was no information of any short except the same phrases getting repeated time and time again. Meanwhile, the now “suspicious device” is all wrapped and cozy inside a heap of blankets and securely bound by yes, you guessed it, headphone cords.

We land, and the pilot comes on and says there’s this security thing and how we should sit there and wait for a nice man to come on the plane and tell us what to do. Fair ‘nuff. But you have to wonder why, if they felt this was serious enough to divert us to Denver airport, and in very short order at that, they were then OK with parking the plane at a normal gate in the B terminal, right between two other aircraft, and surrounded by terminal buildings, fuel trucks and ground staff?

The entire plane then disembarked into buses and we were told we had the fun of being re-screened again but then to head back to the departure gate. Fine, except no one told the security people at airport screening, so they wouldn’t let us through to be scanned because, surprise, surprise, no one had a boarding pass! After another 15 minutes someone more senior than the janitor’s dog showed up and we were allowed to move on through the process. Long story short, we re-boarded a flight that was now 4 hours late and due to arrive into Orlando at 3 am.

Once seated, they reassured us that the plane had been searched by the FBI and TSA, and then the “aisles, seats and overhead bins had been checked by a bomb-sniffing dog”. Blimey. That was either a giant dog whose head was 6 feet from the ground and could reach high enough to do that, or it was some kind of midget breed that they could bung into each bin to check it out by scampering around. The things the Feds have at their disposal that we can only dream of….

Having handled the “device” in question then to me it was over-reaction, but that doesn’t mean I was surprised by the response. However, what did depress me was the total lack of information supplied on what was *actually* happening at any point in this whole production, with instead meaningless phrases being substituted for us all being treated like adults. And that, to my way of thinking, is unacceptable.

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