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The American Flight That Wouldn’t Take Off

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The American Flight That Wouldn’t Take Off

The airline left passengers stranded in Peru for three days rather than book them on other carriers or bring a new plane; here’s how it happened and what you should do in similar circumstances




After the third flight cancellation over three mostly sleepless nights, after hours sitting on a plane going nowhere and waiting in long airport lines, the passengers on American Airlines Flight 988 had enough.

Some sobbed uncontrollably. A few screamed at airline employees. Some broke down because after being stranded three days they were out of vital medicine and patience, or were losing thousands of dollars of work pay.

“For this to just keep happening, we hit our breaking point,” says Lindsey Hoelting, a member of a Baptist church group from Kansas on a mission trip to Peru. “I feel like they could have done a whole lot more to get us out of there sooner than what they did.”

Flight 988, a seven-hour trip from Lima to Dallas-Fort Worth on an 18-year-old Boeing 757, suffered four different mechanical problems that kept it grounded three days in a row starting on Sept. 9. Each day passengers boarded and taxied out, only to end up back in the terminal standing in lines to re-enter Peru, collect luggage and ride shuttles to hotels.

It’s a case study of the choices airlines make when flights go badly wrong, and how that impacts travelers. In this case, American didn’t take extra steps to resolve a bad situation, and it went worse fast.

“It was lather, rinse and repeat. It was the same response every time,” says Angie Thomas, a passenger on the flight and program manager at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

The airline, which had a nightmare summer stemming in part from a contract dispute with its mechanics, says labor isn’t to blame for the Lima debacle. Instead, it was bad luck.

“I would describe it as one of those perfect storms, unfortunately,” says José Freig, American’s managing director of Latin American operations. “The reality is that if we knew Monday that we would be having a conversation about this on Wednesday, I think different decisions would have been made.”

Each time American canceled its flight to Dallas, passengers had to re-enter Peru. Immigration officers canceled the departure stamp in Andrew Perez’s passport three times.

Delays can stretch for several days from time to time. Short of accidents, they are about the worst thing an airline can do to its customers.

This week, hundreds of thousands of travelers were stranded by the financial collapse of British travel company Thomas Cook , which operated more than 100 planes. The U.K. government was chartering planes to rescue stranded Brits.

More typically, these severe delays result from severe storms, strikes and labor disputes, terrorist events, mechanical breakdowns or just airline incompetence.

American says it didn’t switch the regular 757 it flies to Lima from Dallas to a larger 767 to help get stranded passengers out. It also decided not to ferry in a replacement 757 because it kept believing, Mr. Freig says, that each of the four different mechanical problems would get fixed and the plane would be on its way faster than a replacement jet could fly them home.

American didn’t set up a separate check-in line for the 171 passengers of Flight 988, so each day they had to wait in long lines. It didn’t send in extra ground workers to help, and travelers say communication from the crew and the ground staff was sparse.

“We were literally prisoners,” says Andrew Perez, a mediator from McAllen, Texas.

Mr. Perez took a selfie on the floor of the Lima airport terminal while waiting to board American on the third night of the ordeal. That flight also ended up canceled at 4 .m. 

The problems began Sept. 9, when the 11:47 p.m. departure had a glitch in the intercom system pilots and flight attendants use to communicate, a necessary safety item. Maintenance workers determined a replacement part would have to be shipped in from Miami. The flight was, in effect, delayed 24 hours.

Passengers lined up to re-enter Peru through passport control. It was about 2 a.m. and only two officers were on duty. Passenger Ryan Kost, a mountain guide based in Colorado, says he was the end of the line and he stood for close to two hours. Then passengers had to retrieve luggage and shuttle to a hotel, paid for by American. It was 5:15 a.m. when he got to his hotel room.

The next try to leave, scheduled that Tuesday at 11:47 p.m., experienced the next breakdown: An indicator showed a problem with a door and its emergency slide, which was repaired with passengers on board. At about 12:40 a.m., passengers say, the plane taxied out for takeoff. Spirits lifted.

And then they didn’t go anywhere. At about 1:30 a.m., the captain told passengers that “paperwork” wasn’t completed before the airport closed at 1:30 a.m. for planned runway repair work. American’s Mr. Freig says the captain was waiting for final weight-and-balance numbers from dispatchers, usually a routine and quick calculation. American says it’s looking into what happened.

The aborted departure meant another night in Lima so the crew could get required rest. Many passengers didn’t get to hotels that night until 4 a.m.

Wednesday’s attempt was no smoother. The crew didn’t show up for the 10:30 p.m. departure until 10:15—ground staff said they were stuck in traffic. American says that’s not all that unusual in Lima.

Before boarding, a battery failure was discovered on the plane. Given another delay, American says it moved 35 passengers to United and Delta flights. With a repair made, the aircraft began its taxi at 2:14 a.m. Then an engine problem. American finally said after 4 a.m. it would rebook all passengers on other flights.

Passengers and American tell conflicting stories about how hard the airline tried to rebook them during the three days. American started rebooking right away, says Mr. Freig, but other airlines didn’t have many available seats. American says it moved a couple of customers the first night—business-class and top-level frequent fliers typically go first—and 25 after the second. Some took “their own destiny in their own hands,” Mr. Freig says, and found seats when the airline didn’t. About 115 remained.

On the third night, the American flight, renumbered 9243, was delayed by one mechanical repair and then canceled at 4:30 a.m. after a second problem. 

Yet American was able to rebook all passengers on other flights Thursday after the third cancellation, many to Miami. By the time they got to their destinations, it was well into Friday.

Some passengers who tried to get out earlier say they were told by American’s ground staff they weren’t going to rebook them because the plane would be repaired and on its way.

Allan Dumlao, a biotechnology expert from San Francisco, called American’s reservation line the first night and an agent rebooked him on LATAM to New York, connecting to San Francisco on American. When he got a confirmation, it was instead back on the Dallas flight. Members of the Kansas church group say they had a similar experience—rebooked on LATAM through Miami by their travel agent only to find American didn’t move their tickets to LATAM.

Ms. Thomas, trying to get to New Mexico, was told that if she wanted to fly another airline, she’d have to pay for it herself. She did, purchasing a $1,100 for a ticket to Cancún, Mexico, then on to Albuquerque on United through Houston.

American says it will look into how rebooking was handled, and the company is reaching out to passengers to apologize. Yet two weeks after the three-day nightmare ended, four of the eight passengers I talked to said they hadn’t heard from the airline.

Ms. Thomas says she did get a call in response to the complaint she filed and request for reimbursement of the $1,100 ticket home. At first American offered a voucher, then sent an email offering to refund $620 from her original $1,500 ticket for the two flights she didn’t use, plus 40,000 frequent-flier miles, but refused to reimburse the ticket she bought to get home on United.

She has trip insurance that may cover the extra cost, she says, “but I’d really like to see American Airlines pay up.”

A spokeswoman for American says the airline will “discuss” reimbursing customers who bought tickets home. “We want to make this right by them,” the spokeswoman says.

As for the airplane, tail number N176AA, it was repaired and flew back to Dallas Thursday night, arriving at 6:32 a.m. Friday. There were no paying customers on board, Mr. Freig says, only 18 nonrevenue passengers who were airline employees or family



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Its always easier for these airlines to apologize after the fact than to get off their asses and fix the issue while its going on.  I hope the passengers get some money out of those shyster motherfuc*kers.

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I once spent three days of my vacation in the 90s bouncing around Asia, many thanks to China air. They had been ousted from the Philippines for lack of paying airport fees, and instead of making prior arrangements, elected to repeatedly forward us to other countries and airlines, who did not have room for all of us. Two of the airports/airlines were not even notified we were coming, so it was mass confusion when we landed. They did not even try to find us flights until we landed each time in a new country.

Two weeks later on the return, it was a near repeat performance, which made me two days late returning for work.

They did give me a free round trip for my troubles, but only after I started to raise a stink.

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