For the good of one: A flight takes a detour

Lunch in Munich. Dinner in Glasgow. Breakfast in Chicago. This is how the trip ended, but it was not as thrilling as it sounds.

There are many reasons for delays and deviations in flight plans. One of the rarest occurs when a passenger’s medical condition becomes life-threatening.

That was the case less than two hours into my 4,500-mile flight back to the States this month. One ill passenger became the captain’s priority, so a United Airlines 767 bound for O’Hare from Germany with 182 passengers was diverted into Scotland for three hours.

You hear a lot of groaning when a delay is attributed to weather or mechanical woes. While waiting at the last security checkpoint at Munich Airport International (there is a separate screening for just U.S.-bound passengers), the skeptical traveler in front of me didn’t believe for a minute that bad weather in Chicago was to blame for the three-hour delay in our departure.

“Sometimes they just tell you that,” she asserted, nodding toward the list of flights. “No other plane to the states has been delayed.” But only one – ours – was bound for the Midwest, where rain, sleet and snow indeed were complicating life on Dec. 1. The plane we needed to get home was caught in the middle of the mess.

It was my good luck that another passenger also was short-fused. She was a seatmate who complained about a powdery cushion stain and wasn’t satisfied when a blanket was brought to cover it. She finagled another seat assignment, leaving me with more legroom, an aisle vs. middle seat – and no need to use a stain remover on my laundry.

How quickly attitudes soften when you see the distress, and blood, of another human being.

The problem, at first, simply seemed to be a physically fit young man’s nosebleed, just ahead of me. Then came the call for a doctor, and a passenger from suburban Chicago walked ahead from the depths of his economy class seat.

His new patient stood up – face, hands and sweater splattered and smeared with blood – then moved to the back of the cabin with seemingly little effort. We’d later hear that he had recent nasal surgery, not a good match for cabin pressure changes.

The pilot’s next announcement came within an hour. The medical condition wasn’t under control, so we’d go to Glasgow, where the passenger would be hospitalized. The city is not a United Airlines destination.

You play “what if it were me?” games in your head and ponder the flight map on the seatback video screen.

If not for this location – Glasgow – there would be few other landing options before a long stretch of Atlantic Ocean.

“We landed at the nearest and most appropriate airport,” said Jeffrey Kovick, United spokesman, later. It was the captain’s decision, made after consultation with “medical knowledge on board.” Where to land was based on many factors: the patient’s condition, size of aircraft, geographic location, congestion of other airports (such as the busier Heathrow in London).

A need to refuel, change/approve the flight plan and fix a mechanical problem (“a flap issue,” Jeff said) lengthened the on-ground time, but passenger demeanor remained quiet and civil. The flight crew knew how to distract us, by serving dinner, distributing wine and beer for free, staying chatty and pleasant.

Pilots are taught to err on the side of caution, Jeff said, categorizing the incident as “extremely rare.” Inside of O’Hare at 10:30 p.m., our hotel vouchers and flight rebookings were ready for pickup, as it was too late in the evening to consider immediate connections.

“We recognize it wasn’t a situation ideal for the rest of the passengers,” Jeff said, but “one ill passenger became our priority.”

How often does this happen? It was the first such landing incident for a 19-year flight attendant, the third for a 35-year veteran.

Federal Aviation Administration research associated with the 1998 Aviation Medical Assistance Act revealed 188 death or near-death medical events in a year. Most were cardiac problems, resulting in 64 deaths, so now airlines carry automated external defibrillators. This is in addition to other medical emergency supplies/equipment, and flight attendants are trained to respond appropriately.

Considering that U.S. carriers operated 10.5 million domestic and international flights in 2006, the chances that you’ll require medical intervention while flying is remote, but it’s reassuring to see how at least one passenger’s survival was made a priority over the inconvenience of 181 others.

Note: This flight was a part of a press trip that brought four U.S. journalists to Germany. It was sponsored by the Bavaria and Munich tourism offices and Munich Airport International.