Friday, June 24, 2016

Open Letter to United Airlines...

United Airlines Boeing 767-300 (Stock Photo)
24 June 2016

Sir or Madame,
I find myself compelled to write regarding a recent travel experience with your airline.  While not precisely a letter of complaint, I hope to stress herein a few points on the subject of aircraft and passenger safety while detailing both the positive and negative aspects of the narrative.

One initial point I would like to make clear is that I am not an aviation professional but a 36-year Sailor and Merchant Mariner; while not knowledgeable on the minutiae of aircraft systems and procedures I am experienced enough to recognize professional conduct by transportation personnel and the exercise of safe practice in the event of unforeseen incidents.

On 19 June 2016, while returning from U.S. Government business in Crete, I boarded Flight UA125 from Athens to Newark NJ.  Within twenty minutes of departure the Captain made the announcement that there was a problem with the 767-300's flaps (they were jammed in the retracted position) and that the aircraft would be returning to Athens.  Upon completion of a partial fuel dump (which necessitated orbit over the Aegean Sea) we recovered at Athens, landing at higher-than-normal speed to compensate for the decreased flap capability of the aircraft.  Landing was bumpy but not excessively so, and within a few minutes all passengers were safely deplaned.

At this point I would like to recognize the professional performance of the flight crew;  Captain Constantino (I believe this was her name--it is possible that my spelling is incorrect) and her team handled the incident with skill, also keeping the passengers informed of our progress with frequent informative and calming announcements.  Once on the ground the cabin crew especially distinguished themselves by ably managing our exit from the aircraft.
Dumping Fuel over the Aegean Sea
After some delay at Athens Airport the passengers of UA125 were put on buses and transported to the Metropolitan Hotel in the city.  There adequate lodgings and meal service were provided despite the short notice involved, and all involved were provided a pleasant environment to relax in after the day's events.

On the following morning (20 June 2016) the passengers boarded the same aircraft; as I boarded I noted that mechanics (wearing KLM jumpsuits) were working on the underside of the port (left) wing on a hydraulic lift platform.  There was some delay while final inspections took place and paperwork was signed (this announcement was made by the cabin crew), and finally we took off on our interrupted flight to Newark.
Work in Progress--AS we Board!
Unfortunately the 767's flaps were not properly repaired after all; immediately after takeoff the air-crew found that they could not retract the extended control surfaces.  For the second time, after dumping fuel we recovered at Athens Airport to meet the familiar escort of emergency vehicles flashing red lights, deplaned and waited for buses to carry the passengers back to the Metropolitan.

Again, kudos to Captain Constantino and her fine crew; they handled this near-clone of our previous emergency very well.  Unfortunately I cannot say the same for several members of the passenger contingent.  General frustration and anger were quite evident amongst my companions and in three cases that I am aware of verbal abuse was directed at the cabin crew and even the Captain when she walked aft to talk to us.  One passenger that I know of was escorted from the aircraft by Greek police; this man had apparently directed verbal threats at the Captain.
Captain Constantino deals with dissent in the ranks
Finally, on the morning of 21 June, a new aircraft was delivered from Chicago; Captain Constantino and her team took charge of this airliner and the remaining passengers of our group boarded and departed Athens that morning.  This particular flight went off flawlessly and ten hours later we were deplaning in Newark.

Now, for my critique on a safety issue.  On 20 June it was obvious to boarding passengers that the mechanics were still working on the left wing of our 767-300, and our departure was delayed further while paperwork was completed and signed.  The subsequent flap failure and our return to Athens make clear to me that there was no attempt to confirm the success of repairs before embarking passengers and taking off.  This failure to complete a "check flight" to verify the status of the aircraft as adequate for a transcontinental flight was, in my opinion, a significant error.  

Had the aircraft been flown without passengers--with a fuel load sufficient to that purpose--prior to our coming back aboard, it seems clear that this would have negated the possibility of risking the safety of 200+ passengers AND of dumping a second long-range load of fuel into the Aegean Sea.  Surely United spent more money on that wasted av-gas than it would have spent on a quick check-flight, and I for one would not have objected to an additional delay of a few hours while this seemingly obvious test was performed.

Thus, my single complaint to register on the subject of this three-day tale is that, effectively, the airline saw fit to risk the safety of 200+ persons (including myself) on an un-tested aircraft on 20 June 2016.  As a transportation professional I find this unacceptable; it amounts to the use of passengers as experimental "guinea pigs".

This completes my account of the events of 19-21 June 2016 in the environs of Athens, Greece; of course this represents a passenger's eye view and I do not claim to have all details.   I welcome any feedback you might offer in reference to my complaint, and look forward to your response to my concerns.

Thank You,

Thomas L. Epps

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