Saturday, March 25, 2023
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Misadventures in Flying

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During December our family spent a few days enjoying the warm weather and sunshine in Florida, something we certainly missed the last few days as temperatures plummeted here in Happy Valley. Our flights to and from Orlando were uneventful – the way you like plane flights to be – but we did have a minor issue on the return when our TSA PreCheck didn’t work as advertised. 

Our tickets were properly printed with TSA PreCheck and we knew our “Known Traveler Numbers”, but were told that our “tickets weren’t scanning properly” and we had to go through the normal security process. Since we were in the security line long before our plane was scheduled to board, this inconvenience didn’t cause us any harm, but it did make us joke about the $85 one-time fee for TSA PreCheck (this is the only time it has let us down). 

Nine months ago I wrote a column about flying the friendly skies again as pandemic restrictions eased. Since then my wife and I haven’t done much travel, but this snafu brought up the topic of the flying misadventures – those times when an airline flight turned into variations on a nightmare. Having spent a lot of time early in my career on airplanes, I’ve experienced a wide variety of “incidents”. 

Such as the wind shear landing in State College that resulted in weightlessness and a diversion to Harrisburg. The four laps taxiing around Chicago O’Hare for two hours while the restrooms were off-limits. The charter flight on a DC-3 tail-dragger from the Bahamas to Sanford in a thunderstorm, with no visibility and no radar. The flight in Knoxville that mysteriously boarded and left me at the gate while I was in the airport bathroom for a mere five minutes. And there are plenty of others. 

Because anyone who has flown has had at least one memory they’ll never (unhappily) forget, I thought I’d offer my favorite flying misadventure anecdote for your amusement. 

This was a Philadelphia-based incident that occurred on a flight when I was heading home to Orlando. When you’re flying for work and live in Orlando you get used to a certain amount of families with children on your planes. On this day, I got on the plane, stored my carry-on and took my aisle seat. Eventually a young couple with a month-old baby got onboard and sat down in the window and middle seat next to me. We exchanged pleasantries while I was secretly hoping the kid would sleep the entire flight.

The flight attendants closed the cabin door and the plane started to push back. As if on cue the baby threw up a disturbingly large quantity of liquid all over the mother – who was sitting in the middle seat next to me. Somehow I escaped unscathed, but the smell was downright nose-hair burning. As we were now taxiing, the flight attendants came by with handfuls of napkins, explained that the mother and child had to remain seated, and gave her a blanket to cover themselves until the plane took off and it was safe to get to the lavatory. And they whispered to me that they were sorry, but the plane was full and there was nowhere for me to go.

Once airborne, the flight attendants assisted the mother and the baby to the lavatory where they did their best to clean them up. I did what I could to help. The parents had a change of clothes for the baby in their diaper bag, but not themselves. The father was wearing a t-shirt and sweater and gave his t-shirt to his wife. About 30 minutes into the flight the mother and baby sat back down having been doused with whatever air freshening agent the flight attendants could find. Whereupon the baby exploded again. 

The steps above were repeated with the exception that there were no more clothes for the mother, so she dried the t-shirt as best she could and wrapped an airline blanket around herself. Fortunately, or unfortunately, these were still the days when dinner service was normal for all passengers on the plane. The meal that evening was pasta with red sauce. As the flight attendants pushed the cart to our row – where we were still giving off an unpleasant aroma – the flight attendant gave me a “you’re not going to eat this, right” look, which I agreed with and passed on the food. As did the parents. As did several of our fellow passengers in the immediate vicinity.

However, not long after the cart passed, we were in for more fun. The baby spewed again. Keep in mind this baby was tiny. A relative newborn. And the baby had puked an amount of liquid that was inconceivable given its size. Luckily, it mostly got on the airline blanket so that made clean-up a little easier. Again, there was a lot of commotion involving cleaning and sanitizing and deodorizing. I even took a walk to the rear galley and just hung out for a bit, which was probably against some FAA regulation but the flight attendants were sympathetic to my plight. And it made it a bit easier to clean up if I was out of the way. At least my sinuses got a few minutes of reprieve.

Once the situation at my seat had normalized a bit I returned and sat down. The flight was nearing its conclusion and we were in our descent. Soon the little nightmare would be over. I could feel the rumble in my seat as the landing gear of the plane opened below us. Except, not so much. Moments before the plane touched down this cute little baby that couldn’t have weighed more than 10 pounds – who had already thrown up three times in the last two hours and not consumed anything – somehow found it within itself to discharge another large quantity of liquid.

At that point all the mother could do was gather up the blanket in such a way that nothing dripped out and hold it in front of her as her husband held the baby. When the plane finally reached our gate and the door opened the smell was still thick all around our seats. By that point it was ingrained in my nasal cavity. As we deplaned, the couple stayed behind until everyone else was able to exit so they could do one final cleanup and gather their belongings – or the belongings they wanted to take and not throw in the trash.

Normally when I traveled on business I would drive myself to the airport and park in the garage, but for some reason on this particular trip my wife had driven me, so she was there to pick me up. And this was at a time when anyone was allowed to go all the way out to the gate at the airport. So, as I came down the jetway and into the terminal my wife was there to greet me. I put my bag down and we hugged for a few seconds. Long enough for several passengers to pat me as they passed by us. One or two commented, “I don’t know how you did it,” and “Bet you’re glad that’s over!” 

My wife looked at me quizzically as we walked to the tram. If you’ve flown into Orlando airport you know there is a tram that takes you from the gate areas where the planes load to the main terminal building. The trams arrive and depart every few minutes which means that when you get off your plane you’ll likely be on a tram with a few of the passengers on your flight. During the tram ride several other passengers also exchanged glances, pats or words of encouragement with me. When we exited the tram my wife was now completely curious and wondering what the heck had happened on the flight. I spent the better part of the ride home explaining all the gory details. Needless to say, all these years later those details haven’t been forgotten.

Here’s to hoping you never have such flying misadventures!