Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada in March, 2008. Photo by Jon Hurd.
Last weekend’s ill-fated diversion of a United Airlines flight to a remote air base in the Canadian arctic brought to mind the only time I have ever flown across the polar seas.
It was July 2001, and my wife and I were taking our daughters from New York to Japan. Our flight, on a Boeing 777, climbed out of John F. Kennedy International Airport and headed due north across Quebec’s boreal forest before turning west over Nunavut, which had only recently been carved out of the Northwest Territory. In constant summer daylight, we skirted the shore of the Arctic Ocean above still-frozen lakes, far from any settlements, before crossing the Alaskan border. I could make out the ice floes of the Beaufort Sea and, beyond the shore to the south, the forbidding Brooks Range, still heavily snow-covered.
Then we cut southwest past the Bering Strait – yes, you really can see Russia from there – and presumably well offshore of the Kamchatka Peninsula of Siberia. I thought about Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which blundered across Kamchatka and the Soviet island of Sakhalin in 1983 before it was shot down by a Russian Air Force fighter, killing everyone aboard. But the Cold War was over when we took our flight; the Russians under newly empowered Vladimir Putin were our friends. My family proceeded without incident to Japan to start a memorable vacation.
The 250 people who were aboard United Flight 179 when it took off for Hong Kong from Newark, New Jersey on Saturday night will certainly remember their journey, too – but not fondly. When a passenger became ill a few hours into the flight, the crew diverted to the nearest suitable airport. This happened to be the Canadian Forces Base just outside the town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay in Labrador, where the temperature was around 25 below zero degrees Fahrenheit at the time.
Once the sick passenger had been removed from the plane, the crew discovered that a cabin door had been disabled, apparently due to the extreme cold. An on-site mechanic was unable to fix the door. So the passengers and crew were stranded for the ensuing ordeal, mostly aboard the aircraft due to the late-night unavailability of Customs officials who could have processed them to disembark in Canada. According to The Associated Press, the passengers were stuck for about 16 hours until a relief aircraft and crew could arrive to return the party to Newark.
Passengers became irate at United as the hours passed without a clear indication of when they would be able to get airborne again. United has said it is reviewing the incident to see if there was anything the airline could have changed about the way events unfolded. “We’re going to look at every aspect of this diversion to understand what we could do better,” a United spokeswoman told The Wall Street Journal.
I have not been shy about criticizing United myself for some egregious lapses in customer service. But from all appearances, the things that went wrong on Flight 179 were not United’s fault and, for the most part, were far outside the airline’s control. While the condition of the stricken passenger was not publicly known at the time I wrote this post, the fact remains that the crew delivered that passenger to reasonably adequate medical facilities as quickly as possible under the circumstances, and that nobody else got hurt as a result of the diversion. As one of the passengers told his local ABC news affiliate station, “Nobody was getting dehydrated, nobody was starving and the lavatories were functioning. It was just boring and long.”
When it comes to transpolar flights in particular, passenger safety is by far the most important consideration.
As I flew seven miles above those frozen lakes in the Canadian arctic, I wondered what would happen in the event of an in-flight emergency in such an isolated place, far from any airport. Today’s internet made it simple to research this question, almost 18 years later. The answer lies in ETOPS, the set of rules and certifications that govern long-range flight in remote regions of the planet.
Originally, the acronym stood for Extended Range Operation with Two-Engine Airplanes. Today, ETOPS simply means ExTended OperationS, since the rules apply to aircraft with more than two engines as well. The old joke among aviators was that the term actually means Engines Turn Or Passengers Swim, a reference to the fact that if all engines fail while flying over water, the pilot’s only options are to glide to a nearby airfield if land is close by, or to ditch.
When I took my trip near the turn of this century, ETOPS permitted flights by twin-engine aircraft like the B-777 as long as they were within 180 minutes’ flying time and range of a suitable airport on a single engine with a full load. There are airports scattered throughout the Arctic and near-Arctic region that can handle such commercial aircraft on an emergency basis. The Canadian Forces Base at Goose Bay is one of those. Others include the American air base at Thule, Greenland; Iqaluit in Nunavut; the Norwegian Arctic island of Svalbard; Wiley Post-Will Rogers Airport in Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska; and the Russian airfield in Norilsk, Siberia.
Some of the most modern aircraft are certified for more than five hours of ETOPS operation. Besides engines of proven, extremely high reliability, these planes have augmented or redundant emergency systems such as cargo fire suppression. One aircraft, a version of the Airbus A350, has been certified by European regulators for 370 minutes of extended-range operations. More than 95 percent of the globe is thus open to some commercial flight operations.
Despite the fact that they eventually received food catered by the Canadian chain Tim Hortons – never a bad thing – there is no doubt the passengers on United Flight 179 endured a miserable experience. That’s unfortunate. But when we consider that the act of flying from the Northeast U.S. to Hong Kong necessarily requires flying over the remotest regions of the far north, in this case during the very dead of winter, the fact that such an emergency can be handled without serious injury or incident is remarkable. That these passengers’ inconvenience made global headlines reflects how much we take for granted, living in the era that we do.