A Flight To Saint Thomas Turns Sour

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The trip looked so easy, on paper, when I swapped into it. By starting later in the day than the original trip I was awarded, I could commute up to New York the day it began, rather than spending the prior night at the crash pad. That extra night at home gave me the chance to attend a meet-and-greet for a friend’s startup fractional operation and then a date-night dinner with Amy. 

When the captain and I met at the gate to start the trip, he asked one question: “Done Saint Thomas lately?” Nope, never. He said it’d been a long time for him as well. The trip wrapped up four days of flying with a round trip down to Saint Thomas, and for the first three days, neither of us thought much more of it. That night, I opened up part of the company’s website that gives access to flight loads, route tracking and such, and looked at the last day’s flight. That day’s flight had been authorized to 72 people for weight and balance reasons, but 75 boarded. Then the flight hopped over to San Juan for a tech stop—a gas-and-go, the airline equivalent of a pit stop for a quick gulp of gas in NASCAR. The tight cap on passengers got me looking—the Airbus A321 is equipped with more than twice as many seats. If we loaded up more folks than allowed, we’d have to go light on the fuel, which meant we’d be stopping for fuel along the way. 

Scrolling back through the week’s flights, I saw that more than half the departures made a tech stop in San Juan, Fort Lauderdale or Orlando. All of a sudden, it looked like the captain and I wouldn’t be going home at the time we saw advertised when we picked this trip.

While the charts failed to clearly identify the reason for all those tech stops and weight-limited flights, I got the picture when we rolled out on final. There was a strong wind out of the east, and big hills off the east end of the runway meant that either we’d be taking off pointed right at menacing terrain, or we’d be taking off with a tailwind right at the aircraft limitation of 15 knots—a hard limitation, not the “max demonstrated” we see advertised on wind limits of many lighter aircraft. I weighed it all in my mind as I flew down final, autothrust off, and wiped the power just a little earlier than normal. The runway at Saint Thomas is 7,000 feet long—not the shortest in the system but also not very long and also lacking taxiway turnoffs if we rolled down toward the end. I flew the mains into the thousand-feet markers on the runway, and with the autobrakes on medium, we were at a walking pace as we neared the perfect taxiway turnoff for entry to the ramp. 

It was abundantly clear that when taking off, whether to clear the rocks off the east end or to get airborne with a stiff tailwind going the other way, we’d have to be light.

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We parked, and the station pulled the stairs to the door—and just that quickly, a sticky situation the captain and I had pushed aside hundreds of miles ago reared its ugly head. “The station doesn’t have any law enforcement here to meet us. They never got the message,” one of the flight attendants told us.  

I didn’t even know which language to cuss in down here, but English worked fine.

More than four hours ago, we’d been at the gate in Newark, with passengers boarding and nearly through with our preflight preparations. A few kids came aboard, loudly, and we heard one yell, “Hey, there are the pilots!” Since we were pretty well done with our work for the moment, we waved them forward and soon found our flight deck packed with four kids—two boys, the oldest maybe 6, and their slightly older sisters. Their mother stepped forward, too, videoing the circus. The captain rolled his seat back and stepped into the space behind it, waving the boys into his spot for a photo. The excited jabber was a mix of English and Russian as they alternately reached for the dusty red buttons we try to avoid touching and smiled for mom’s camera. With their photos snapped, the girls took their turn—the kids were a little energetic but no great concern. We smiled, welcomed them aboard, and sort of nodded to the back, and mom got the hint—off they went. 

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About an hour after departure, the flight attendants called us. “We’re going to need law enforcement to meet the flight upon landing.” Long blink. What? “Your friends from Newark, those kids? They’re terrorizing the plane. Their mother is passed out asleep, likely medicated. Their dad won’t wear his face mask or make the kids behave. They’re running up and down the aisles, throwing snacks all over, kicking seatbacks, screaming—we’re fairly certain at least a dozen customers will demand a refund from this circus.”

As travel demand returned in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw a rise of surly passengers, who apparently hadn’t practiced being good neighbors while crammed into an aluminum tube for hours at a time. Every airline had its issues and most crews had personal horror stories—mine had been benign up to this point. We fired a series of messages to dispatch, who relayed our situation to corporate security, who said they’d taken care of it, and we’d have police waiting on our arrival.

So there we were, in Saint Thomas, passengers spewing out the door and down the stairs, and the station chief was scrambling to find a police officer to dispense a stern talking-to for our problem guests, who luckily had been seated at the very back of the airplane. It took several minutes before they got to the door. 

The officer led the family to wherever they go for these sorts of things, and the station chief stepped into the cockpit for a little talk with us. She apologized profusely—she’d been away from her computer all morning and hadn’t gotten the email, and these sorts of things just sort of slip through the cracks, and could we please just accept her apology and move on and start boarding the outbound passengers?

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I cradled my head with one hand, shifting to pinch the bridge of my nose while processing all this. We’d briefed every crew of flight attendants of the trip that we would not tolerate this sort of behavior, and here we were, being asked—almost expected—to tolerate this sort of behavior.

All this drama was making our day even longer, which was a problem since we were scheduled near the flight time limit for a single day, and our on-duty time limits didn’t have a lot of meat left on the bone, either. The station chief radioed the gate, and people exploded from the terminal to board our plane.

All the while, we’d been trying to download our flight plan for the route back. There was nothing in the system. The manager was still in the cockpit with us, so we tried to give her cues that we needed to get moving along: Let’s go to Newark and be done with this day. Give us the release with the flight plan, and we’re out of here. Having shifted our focus to the customer issue, we’d forgotten the other challenge: Big rocks. Strong winds. “Oh, you’re tech-stopping in Fort Lauderdale,” the station manager said. 

It was the first we’d been told about it, despite me having known it was almost a certainty. “So…we’re half-boarded, and you tell us now,” I asked. “When were you planning to tell the passengers?” 

“Oh, we told them at the gate.” 

Does anyone ever stop to think about who might need to know this information first? I bit my tongue and didn’t say it because I knew there was no way it could escape my lips with any sort of a respectful tone. Seeing my expression, the manager also bit her tongue moments before she seemed ready to say something about overpaid button-pushers who just go wherever the autopilot takes them. Our tongue-biting stare off was short-lived, interrupted by static and garbled words on her radio that demanded her presence away from us. 

I looked at my watch and at the trip pairing. If we landed in Lauderdale, we’d be done—the added flying time would make us illegal to operate the leg from there to Newark. There would, hopefully, be a reserve crew at the gate, ready to go, but we knew better than to hope. Minutes passed, then an hour. Folks were getting antsy, and to be honest, we were, too. Just then, a message popped to our screen from headquarters. “Shift change. New dispatcher. New eyes on this flight. We can make STT-EWR work.” 

Sure enough, using 14 of the 15 knots allowable for a tailwind on takeoff, we launched out over the water using a lot of flaps and full takeoff power. With Saint Thomas fading off the bottom of the moving maps on our screens, I looked left, and the captain looked right. “That enough of Saint Thomas for you?” 

“Yep, I’m good for a decade or so.” 

Do you want to read more of Jeremy King’s Words Aloft columns? Check out “Dealing With An Over-Fueled Airplane.

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