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