Friday, 3 March 2017

USA: Delta Flight From Mexico To Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport, 139 Passengers Stranded In Texas

For the past 19 years, a group of people affiliated with the Moorhead American Legion members, employees, and a growing crowd of family and friends have taken a group vacation together to Mexico. Everyone always has a great time, and this year was no different.

The journey back was memorable, too. For all the wrong reasons.

Kylie Cook, her Moorhead Legion group, and about 120 other passengers were scheduled to fly out of Ixtapa, Mexico, and land at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport about four and a half hours later.

The first sign something was wrong with flight DL336 came with a five-plus hour delay getting out of the Mexican airport, Cook says. By the time they finally took off, they should've already landed in the Twin Cities.

Their Delta Air Lines pilot apologized for the long wait, which he called "a fiasco," as Cook recalls. Delta declined to answer specific questions about the flight.

At the time, passengers were told something had been wrong with one set of bathrooms; they'd be allowed to fly out, but the toilets at the front of the plane were off-limits.

Cook and her sister were seated at the very back of the plane. Over the noise of the engine, Cook says they could heard the flight attendants talking.

"They were expressing concerns," Cook says. "They didn't want to be on the plane."

Cook's already a nervous flier. This overheard chatter did not help.

"It really was terrifying," Cook says. "It was unsettling, and I was anxious at first."

About an hour and a half later, everyone else suddenly felt like the flight attendants: They didn't want to be on this plane, either.

The plane went silent and dark, Cook says, and the pilot switched on the seat belt sign and told passengers they'd be making an emergency landing in 10 minutes. Flight attendants who'd just started beverage service rushed to collect loose items.

Mercifully, their descent was uneventful.

"It was smooth, the pilots handled that effortlessly," Cook says."The landing went well."

Once they were on the ground, the passengers went back to waiting. They'd landed in Harlingen, Texas (population 75,000), a border city with a small airport that closes for the night after its last flight. The people on flight DL336 would have to wait until airport staff and customs agents could be summoned back to handle their unexpected arrival. That took another 90 minutes, Cook says, and finally the group entered the Valley International Airport around 11:00.

It was dark, empty, and a little eerie.

Delta ordered a big round of pizzas and bottled waters for the captive passengers, some of whom tried sleeping in chairs or on top of their bags.

Cook's party was worried about an older male in their group who suffers from pulmonary disease, and was still recovering from a cold he'd come down with in Mexico.

"We were really trying to get him back home," Cook says. "He was in a wheelchair, and not breathing well. He was very white."

Through the night, passengers got "three or four updates" over the intercom, she says. When they were told a plane would land there at 2:35 a.m., some cheered; then they groaned when told they'd have to wait for TSA agents to arrive at 4:00 a.m.

At last, their replacement plane took off around 7:00 a.m., with a new crew and an exhausted load of passengers. This second flight was normal, and delivered the 139 of them to Minneapolis-St. Paul later that morning -- about 30 hours after their trip home had begun.

Delta representatives were waiting for them at the gate, and provided new boarding passes to those who'd long before missed connecting flights. That's about it, Cook says.

"It seemed like they just wanted to scoot us along. Like, 'If you need to get to your gate, go.'"

Cook says some members of her group have reached out to the airline in the days since, describing their less-than-satisfactory experience, and reports they've been offered vouchers for $200.

That feels like a slap in the face," Cooks says. "You can give up your ticket on an overbooked flight, and they'll give you two free vacations. We went through a volatile situation."

Cook has regularly flown Delta in the past, and says the experience has always been "really wonderful." She realizes passengers should appreciate they made it to the ground (and home) safely, but faults the airline for a lack of communication about what was going on. If they'd known it would take so long to take off, some might've left the airport and found hotel rooms in Harlingen. Cook says she and her sister would've rented a car and just driven back to North Dakota .

She's not sure what they should do to make the passengers of DL336 whole, but says an acknowledgment that mistakes were made would be a good start.

Delta's not doing that just yet. The airline responded to repeated requests for comment with a statement.

"The flight crew of Delta flight 336 from Ixtapa, Mexico elected to divert to Harlingen, TX out of an abundance of caution following a maintenance issue with the aircraft. The Airbus A320 landed without incident and the 139 customers were reaccommodated on an alternate aircraft. The safety of our customers and crew is our top priority and we apologize for the inconvenience."

Says Cook: "The trip to Mexico was absolutely phenomenal. Then we got got back, and everybody felt like we don’t really remember it any more."