The Trans States Airlines / Air Wisconsin Incident

On September 20th, 2010, Daisy Belle and i were on the last leg of our journey flying back from the ekoparty conference in Buenos Aires. In Washington's Dulles airport we experienced a level of travel fail that would almost not be thought possible under the newly-enacted laws and regulations. And yet, here is what transpired...

The facts described below are accurate to the best of my ability and have been transcribed with the aid of notes taken on board the aircraft and by using time stamps from text messages, emails, calls, and twitter posts in order to be as accurate as possible. (Note - to anyone comparing the facts here with the times shown on my Twitter feed, my phone was still on Buenos Aires time, so things appear to be an hour off. My Twitter feed shows time stamps that are ahead by one hour.) A sheet of paper was circulated among passengers on the aircraft, and because of that at least a dozen people are in contact with me regarding their outrage over this incident. Those who have offered additional opinions all have concluded that these facts are accurate according to their recollection, as well.

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United Airlines flight 7988 was a code-shared (actually a sub-contacted) hop from IAD to PHL that was being carried out by Trans States Airlines operating as United Express.

The flight was originally scheduled to depart Washington at 12:44 and arrive in Philadelphia at 13:52. Due to delays at another airport (i believe in Dayton, Ohio) the actual equipment (a Brazilian-made Embraer ERJ 145) arrived at IAD at least one hour late. On-screen monitors in the terminals informed passengers of potential wheels up times of 14:44, 13:55, and (ultimately) 14:29.

The flight boarding began at 14:05 and was completed by 14:15. At 14:18 we were told that we were preparing to push back from the gate. All electronics to be turned off, etc.

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Stowage Delays
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A short while later we had not moved at all and then came some announcements regarding trouble with how our gear was stowed... a cargo net was not put in place properly and some manner of strap was missing.

At 14:54 an additional announcement was made regarding the luggage troubles, describing how the ground crew would have to unload all bags in order to get to the cargo net that was trapped beneath the luggage. At this time, those of us in the front of the aircraft could hear the Trans States Airlines crew griping over the fact that the ground crew, another contract outfit (this group from Air Wisconsin Airlines Corporation), did not do their pre-flight prep work on the plane properly.

Near 15:00 we were in open discussion with the Trans State Airlines staff about what a horrid little carrier this is and how their boss is an awful man. We were not given free drinks, allegedly because the superiors at Trans States Airlines will never allow this.

At 15:13 we were still on the apron and had not pushed back. No one on the ground seemed to be doing anything and the flight crew could give us no useful information. With concern over missing additional flights, two passengers de-boarded and opted to attempt to arrange other transport on their own. It was not possible to merely walk off the aircraft, however, given that the air stairs were not in place and no route back to the terminal was easily available. An airline representative had to come out and "escort" these two passengers back into the airport by some special means.

Around 15:30, there was talk of a need to remove seven bags completely from the plane (and having them come on a later flight). There was a general uproar among passengers over which ones would be removed, etc. There was virtually no helpful advice from anyone on the flight crew about how this was being handled. Additional passengers who wanted to get off the plane were now told that it would not be possible.

I took this opportunity to use the restroom and also speak with the dozen or so Airmen, Sergeants, and a Captain from the USAF who were aboard our plane to thank them for their service, ask about their current assignments, and tell them about the Traveling Terabyte Project.

At 15:52 i took a photo out of a port side window in which at least ten individuals from the Air Wisconsin ground crew can be seen sitting or standing idly, doing nothing, while we were still in the midst of an allegedly huge luggage problem...

Shortly after the top of the hour (16:00) we were told there were still problems with luggage... how it was stowed, counted, and secured. We could not figure out how this could still be, with such a small plane and so many hands available to fix the matter.

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Paperwork Delays
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At approximately 16:20 things became VERY disturbing for those of us in the front of the aircraft, as we could overhear the conversation between the flight crew and the ground crew.

It is important to understand the following points clearly!

For a plane to be cleared and ready, part of the paperwork process is the GROUND crew giving a final bag count to the flight crew. The flight crew compares this number to their own records and sees if all looks well.

That wasn't happening here. The Trans States Airlines crew (captain as well as cabin crew) kept asking for the bag count. The Air Wisconsin ground crew kept answering with phrases like "well, how many bags are you expecting?" and "we have luggage for about 40 passengers, i believe... does 40 sound right?"

The Air Wisconsin ground crew appeared to be fishing for the right number just to satisfy all requirements and get the plane out of there. The captain was having none of it. Apparently, some confusion may have arisen over the departure of two passengers much earlier.

Eventually (due in no small part to the Trans States Airlines captain's refusal to be coerced or to look the other way on the rules) it came to light that the numbers still were not right. The Air Wisconsin ground crew had loaded twice as many "heavy" bags as they originally said (16 as opposed to 8) and had still not secured the load properly.

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Beyond Three Hours
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At 16:53 we were still in DC. Many passengers were now on their phones either texting, calling, or emailing to make other arrangements. A number of people were traveling on to Barcelona from Philadelphia and began asking panicked questions to the flight attendant, Audrey. She responded by consistently assuring everyone that the flight itself takes only 25 to 30 minutes and that people would make their connections.

Shortly after 17:00 we began to actually taxi further out onto the airfield. This is not an insignificant time, given that we were minutes away from the three hour mark at which point the flight would be scratched. Both Audrey and the pilot assured us we would be in the air in five minutes.

At 17:35 we were still on the apron, watching as at least a dozen aircraft proceeded to the active runway before we did. At this time, people were becoming irate, loud, and demonstrably distressed. By now the lone bathroom had a completely full toilet. The sink in the bathroom was permanently disabled, as are many sinks on Trans States Airlines flights i've been on in the past...

... although moist towelettes are made available, they had been completely exhausted by this time.

One pregnant passenger explained that she could endure no more, that there was no chance of her making her 18:30 flight to Barcelona, and that she could not stay the night in Philadelphia alone in her condition (possibly without her luggage, etc... as we still had no assurances that all luggage was on our flight). Multiple passengers were pointing out that we had now been on board the aircraft well in excess of three hours.

The flight attendant chastised the distressed passengers, first simply saying that "the pilot was in no mood for that sort of talk" (i may be paraphrasing but that's quite close to the statement given) and later saying that they "were talking to dispatch about turning the plane around" but making it quite clear the whole time that this was a bad idea.

Eventually the distraught passengers, including the pregnant woman, were shouted down by the flight crew and all parties acquiesced to continue with the taxiing. It was during this time that veiled threats of arrest or prosecution were made against the pregnant woman (due to the fact that she was overheard using the F-word on a private phone call she was making to her husband).

At 17:40 there was to be no further talk of going back to gate. We were told that we would surely be taking off "within five minutes" A short while later i began asking aloud if we had even been assigned a place in the takeoff order yet. The captain announced shortly thereafter that we were "at best #10 in line" thus guaranteeing at least 15 to 20 more minutes of time under the best of conditions.

At 18:11 we were still on the runway, awaiting takeoff. We went wheels up soon after.

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We were wheels down in Philadelphia shortly after 19:00.

After a confusing trudge around the baggage claim area amidst signs that showed no details of our flight (but, confusingly enough, showed a listing for a "United 7998" and listed it as "canceled" and assigned to an out-of-service baggage carousel) we obtained our luggage from a halting bag belt that had to be restarted in order to operate properly.

Daisy Belle's checked baggage was in the luggage office, having arrived on a different flight... so not all bags actually flew on our scheduled aircraft.

I, personally, arrived back at my home more than 24 hours after starting my journey of flying the previous day.



* Note - the individual pictured in the right-side header photo of this was not among the Air Wisconsin employees photographed that evening. This was a stock image i found elsewhere on the internet and adapted with an AWAC logo for purposes of satire, much like the movie artwork on the left-side of the header. Images used for purposes of humor and satire.