I am a survivor of American Flight 137

The following text was found scratched into a Cadbury vending machine between gates 29 and 30 at Glasgow International Airport, Glasgow, Scotland.

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After the experience I had on my last trans-Atlantic flight you know of my skill for attracting drama while flying the friendly skies. Sure enough, on Monday, I was one of the passengers on American Airlines Flight 137, diverted en route from London to LA. You might also know of my predilection for relating any airborne incident to the plot of a hit television show. But I assure you, today was nothing, nothing like TV.

About an hour after our departure from London, the cabin started to buzz about the fact that we had turned around (easily confirmed by the flight tracker feature on our video screens). Just as the flight attendant was about to hand over my slice of meaty lasagna, the captain announced that a fire alarm had gone off in the cargo hold and we were making an emergency landing in Glasgow in 12 minutes. Out my window, fluffs of cloud parted as if on cue, revealing the rolling snowcapped hills of northern Scotland.

We were given instructions to prepare for an emergency landing by doing two things: assuming the brace position and removing our stiletto heels (they’d pop the inflatable slide, you see; good to know). But the plane landed without incident. A half-dozen emergency vehicles paraded us to the gate, where we were told that after infrared scanners checked the cargo hold for heat, we’d refuel and be on our way. Quickly the story changed and we were told to disembark. And it was once we stepped off that plane, alone on this mysterious island, that strange things began to happen…

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1:56pm
Given £10 vouchers, we’re told to find food. Most passengers, including the stocky American who was sitting next to me and a mouthy Brit he’s just befriended, make a beeline for the airport pub. £10 could easily get you drunk, however, no change is given for the voucher, so you’re forced to either order all three pints at once or enter into alliances, trusting that those who you purchase rounds for will return the favor after they’ve started drinking. The more resourceful of us forage deep into the terminal, where I manage to secure the last bacon sandwich, elbowing out a quiet Asian couple who are left with only prawn mayonnaise. Passengers play The Price Is Right with the cashier, trying to maximize their purchasing power without going over. No one comes close except a tall black guy who would have made Bob Barker proud by scoring £9.97 on the first try. Another woman hordes more than a dozen dark Belgian chocolate bars as if she’s just gotten out of prison. Even after buying four unnecessary packs of gum, I’m still three pounds short, so I toss in a bag Werther’s Originals. At £2.50 they’re on the pricey side of the goods available, and I know they’ll come in handy for bartering in the future.

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2:35pm
When we walked off the plane, we were given orange tags that identified us as passengers in limbo, tags which help us to secure our food vouchers and prevent us from leaving the airport. Most of the men have taken to putting these in their shirt pockets which turn them into orange neon name tags that all read TRANSIT PASSENGER BOARDING PASS, and people have started to bring their drinks out of the pub which gives the waiting area the feeling of the opening-night cocktail party at a convention. One guy with a big smile is even walking around and loudly introducing himself to everyone as if he’s trying to close a deal. An announcement comes over the loudspeaker, the first update to our status all day. “Anyone requiring a cigarette please contact a member services representative at gate 29.” Despite our desperate need for answers better than this, the crowd laughs for about ten minutes.

3:13pm
A leader has emerged, a man who I’ll call Jack. He stands with his arms crossed in front of his black fleece while calmly explaining the innerworkings of both 777s and the Transportation Security Administration. He has the complexion and the demeanor of a Southern Baptist preacher; they all trust him. A group has gathered around as he publicly plans his escape—flying back to London to catch the next direct flight to LA. But something about Jack’s plan seems risky to me.

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4:02pm
There’s a group of people gathered in the corner who seem to have more than the rest of us—better wireless plans, UK power adapters, extra food vouchers. We call them The Others. They are helped before anyone else, and wear impeccable, unwrinkled suits as indicators of this status. When the rescue plane comes they’ll be the first to board. I fear they are plotting to leave the rest of us behind.

5:21pm
Jack bursts through the crowd, out of breath. “Have they made any more announcements?” The crowd shakes their heads. “Does anyone have any new information?” The crowd says no, no new information, no one has talked to us all day. “I’ve just come back from the other side,” Jack says. “And I have new information.” A plane is rumored to be coming from London, he says, coming to rescue us, coming to take us—almost—home. While delivering us to our original destination is not their primary objective, they will take us as far as New York. From there we’ll be rerouted appropriately. This announcement is met with wild applause. He takes a victory lap, asking at least six rows of people in the waiting room if they want anything from the bar.

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6:29pm
It’s apparent now that no one is coming for us. Another round of meal vouchers is offered but most people are too weak to fetch them. It begins to snow, heavily. A French woman tries desperately to dial home. I move my camp to the far end of the waiting area where I listen to the plans of another alliance, lead by an older man who speaks in low, even tones. John, as I’ll call him, says he knows for a fact that there will be no more flights out of New York when we arrive there late tonight. We’ll have to be put up in hotels, he tells us. “A hotel room!” an older couple say to each other with delight, as if they had just won a new car.

7:46pm
A pregnant woman shifts her weight across the aisle from me and our eyes meet. It must be difficult for her in this state but my rations are down to a half-eaten bag of Malteasers and I’d be an idiot to share them with someone who’s eating for two. I have stowed the Werther’s in the chair underneath me, in case someone tries to steal them from me as I sleep. As I drift in and out of consciousness I look at the group gathered in the waiting room and realize that no matter how sweaty or stinky or tired everyone is, they somehow still are all incredibly good looking.

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8:10pm
I’ve befriended a man of Arabic descent, who has a small transponder. Using his signal I’m able to contact the American Airlines Advantage Platinum desk, where I tell the woman I need to be rebooked out of New York when our plane arrives there later this evening. “But you’re supposed to be on your way to Los Angeles!” she exclaims, confused. “I know,” I say, wearily. “I know.” When I tell her I’m in Scotland, that confounds her equally. “Scotland? What are you doing there?” No one in the outside world seems to know what happened. No one seems to know we’re even here.

9:36pm
The plane from London heard our distress signal and they’ve found us! We’re being rescued! The entire manifest crushes the desk; the last minute they’ve told all 192 of us we need to check in manually again. And since they don’t have any computers, they’re having to call London and talk through our reservations one by one. But that doesn’t matter. A plane has arrived. A large man with goofy sideburns is whistling “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” I’m booked on a flight that arrives in Los Angeles at 9:45am, which will get me home just 36 hours after I first boarded a plane in Helsinki, including two hours that will be spent in that fabled hotel, the Ramada Plaza-JFK Airport. Just 36 hours! That’s not even two days! Think of how long it must have taken in the olden days! As I shuffle towards the gate, my belongings clutched to my chest, I still can’t believe what’s happening: Me and my Werther’s Originals are going home.

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  • http://www.portigal.com/blog Steve Portigal

    I love this post so much. The blurry mix of the believable and the fantastic details in an outrageous story are wonderful.

  • Alissa

    Thanks, Steve! But the most outrageous thing about this story is we have to go back!

  • Jeri

    Very funny and accurate, and yes I was there. In fact I was the one who inspired that whistling man. Sorry. He asked me why I was smiling to which I responded “why should I stress about something I have no control over.” To add to your story, when we were in line for security check in NY to LAX, I was pulled aside and told I was SSSS(I guess which meant extra security check). I was pulled aside to be touched and poked by an angry and burly woman in gloves. I am a 92 lbs Catholic, wasn’t about to ask why! Oh… good times!

  • http://39point.com Nate Voss

    Alissa, you tell the most wonderful stories in the whole wide world.

  • Rob

    Alissa, you need to be picked up for a TV series. Concept: Alissa boards a plane. Chaos ensues. Title: Air Alissa. Glad you made it home for the better though.

  • Alissa

    Received via email today:

    Dear Ms. Walker:

    Our manager in London was concerned and asked us to follow up with you regarding your flight with us on March 3. We can understand how frustrating that trip must have been. We are very sorry for all the difficulties you encountered when flight 137 made an unscheduled stop in Glasgow.

    As our personnel indicated at the time, a mechanical problem developed en route to Los Angeles, and the flight landed in Glasgow so that our specialists could take a look at the problem. Upon evaluation, it was determined the aircraft would need to be taken out of service for repairs. While our personnel worked hard to minimize the inconvenience, we know that many of our customers’ important plans were disrupted. I am truly sorry.

    In appreciation for your patience, we’ve added 10,000 Customer Service
    bonus miles to your AAdvantage® account. You should see this mileage adjustment inyour account very soon, and you can view this activity via AA.com at http://www.aa.com/AAdvantage. I hope this gesture of goodwill helps restore your confidence in us.

    Your loyalty is important to us and I would like to assure you that we are committed to getting you to your destination as planned. Sometimes, as on March 3, flights won’t operate as planned but our goal is to keep those times to a minimum. I know your next trip with us will go much more smoothly than this one did. We will look forward to welcoming you on board soon.

    Sincerely,

    B. J. Russell
    Customer Relations
    American Airlines

    This is an outgoing only email address. Please do not reply.

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  • http://www.notclosed.com Scott

    Crazy! Too bad they couldn’t have given you miles on a different airline.

    The next time I see you remind me to tell you about the first time I ever got on a plane, which was supposed to be a direct trip from Boston to Paris but ended up taking 44 hours–thanks to an actual (defused) bomb, an emergency landing, a night spent in an empty TAP terminal, an unscheduled stop in Zurich and a midnight bus ride through the Black Forest to an abandoned ski resort.

  • Chris Thompson

    I too was there–and coming from Helsinki no less! You captured the spirit of the post-landing adventure perfectly. I have to say though, the people in Glasgow seemed to be much more interested in making our stay palatable than did the American Airlines people on the phone. And watching the Boots cashiers play “Price is Right” was fantastic. I remember winning the argument that a box of tea was indeed food and should be covered by the voucher.

    CT

  • Alissa

    Anyone else have any luck getting more than the 10,000 miles? I just got my Platinum card in the mail (oh, the irony) which prompted me to send another email pleading my case for at least a complimentary domestic round-trip ticket. You get at least that for surrendering your seat VOLUNTARILY.

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    I haven’t flown since..(well, I haven’t moved out of my town ever..^^)I love to try and experience how it is taking the airplane..but situations like these kinda scare me..I understand accidents know no public transpo..may it be in the plane..cab or train..those plane accidents I see in movies..the sides of the plane just rip off and people are thrown outside and what is very horrifying is getting suck in th propeller..that is just morbid..it gives me goosebumps..

  • http://www.allamericanlimoservice.com/airport.html AllAmericanLimo

    I think the thing that matters most was that you were safe. Being in that situation must be very traumatic for you. I had experienced totally undesirable accidents, accidents you would not think you get yourself into. But at the end of it, even though we have lost our properties(which meant that we have to start from scratch), my family and I were still thankful all of us were injured or died in the accident.^ ^

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  • Janet

    Well written! We were on that same flight 137 (me, my husband and my 80-year-old mother-in-law) and I came across your post while checking the status of 137 which my husband happens to be on today. We were the people in the pub 😉

  • Alissa

    That’s hilarious! I hope he makes it back without the stop in Scotland. Ah, the memories of that pub…

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  • Finlay

    This is brilliant! I’m taking 137 to LA next week, hopefully we wont end up stuck in Scotland!

  • chase

    flights always freaked me out thinking of all the things that can happen

  • Matt

    A survivor! Of a delay!! First world problems.