An emergency landing

This past week, I got on an Air Jamaica flight from New York to Grenada. I had barely slept the previous night so right around take off at 7:40am, I fall asleep. I awake to hear the captain telling us to start preparing for landing.

I groggily look at my watch. I can’t possibly have been 5 hours. It was 8:00am. Huh? I flag a flight attendant – what’s going on? Apparently the captain announced that we have to go back to NY because there are flight control problems. Oh, and I should read the card in the seat back since this is an emergency landing and we will all need to be in the “brace position“.

That’s a first. In all my years of flying, this has never happened. I look around at the other passengers. There seems to be lots of nervous energy but everyone is dong something to keep their minds and hands occupied.

Oddly, I am not stressed. At all. In fact, it is the other extreme – I am very calm. I wonder if this is how I am going to die. At some level, I don’t really believe we are going to crash and die. Very detachedly, I think “Ah, well, it is what it is”. The pilot circles the landing strip in huge circles, trying hard to dump as much fuel as possible. I guess the turning is hard because of the control issues he’s having. But this goes on for about 35 minutes. I read the safety instruction card and examine the brace position – very straightforward.

Then the captain asks the flight attendants to take their seats. He orders all of us to go into brace position. This is where things got a touch nervy. The brace position I assumed was with my elbows on my knees, my hands clasping the opposite arm, and my head against the seat in front of me. The thing is that in this position, I couldn’t see very much. Actually, nothing besides my shoes. So, not knowing what was going on was what made it a touch scary. That and the fact that the captain barks over the PA system “Brace position! Brace position! Brace position!” Yes, we get it dude, we are all in brace position already. Snapping at us is just making us nervous! Maybe he had to do this – mandatory protocol to make us aware that this was serious stuff.

The plane made the approach and it was very rocky – lots of swaying with one wing always above the other instead of in stable equilibrium. He hit the ground and jammed on the brakes like there was no tomorrow. Screeching halt, my head firmly imbedded in the seat in front of me. Phew – we had landed. As soon as we came to a stop, 40 or so emergency vehicles surround us. More ambulances and fire engines in the distance leave the scene, happy that the plane didn’t explode. The captain tells us that one of the wheels is on fire/smoking and the fire department is looking into it. We sit there for a while and then finally start pulling into the gate.

There is an Air Jamaica employee sitting near me. I see her quietly take her cash and passport out of her bag and put them in her pockets. Hmm… I wonder if they will make us leave everything on-board. I do the same.

The captain announces that this happens sometimes. Much like a car, aircrafts need service. What?? How dare he even make the analogy?! Well, first, you don’t find out you have to service an aircraft when you are in midair. Second, as an airline, you are PAID to make sure that aircrafts are serviced regularly – BEFORE there are issues. Isn’t that what service days are for?? Honestly, I was not upset that this happened – stuff happens. But the captain trying to make a lame excuse? That made me really mad. When things go wrong, accept responsibility, stand up and be accountable. That’s what differentiates great companies that can lead in times of crisis

We disembark – I see the Air Jamaica employee hug another employee on the ramp. She is shaken. Must have been a first for her too. And apparently this was quite serious. I learn later that even when we landed, we could have blown up since we had so much fuel. Thankfully we didn’t.

Air Jamaica does a terrible job sharing information. No apologies, no information. The standard $8 meal coupon for passengers is handed out an hour and a half after we have disembarked. Terrible – this load of passengers just went through something scary – do you need to check their tickets before handing out a coupon? Hand them out like candy! Break the rules and give everyone four coupons so they can eat a great meal. Make them happy!!!

I think airline employees should learn how to step up in these situations and make the passengers feel better – break the rules, do more than expected and you will have customers for life. Do the basic required minimum and you’ll have people who will try to avoid flying you ever again. Air Jamaica clearly fell into the second bucket for me.

I see the captain a couple of hours after we land as the crew is being changed. I ask him if it has been fixed. He says yes. I ask him are we sure it won’t happen again. He says that we can never be sure, but if it happens again, the new captain will be able to land the plane again. Such words of inspiration!

I spend my time calling family and telling them I am fine. I watch some cricket on my computer and chat with my fellow passengers – many of them Grenadians who live in New York who are going home for a visit.

Finally, at 2:30, the plane was fixed and we took off again – on the same airplane. Everyone was nervous this time around. The plane seems to struggle to get off the ground. But we are off.

I look out the window at a shrinking New York. I wasn’t really nervous through 99% of the experience (except when brace position was being yelled at me), and even though I know how statistically safe air travel is, I think this experience will come to mind each time I take off – at least for the next few months.