travelin' tales
alaska airlines
san juan islands


A nerve-racked flight on Alaska
Sacramento Business Journal
February 18 , 2000

There's nothing like flying in a jet just like the one that crashed into the Pacific a week earlier, killing all aboard. Well, I did just that. And I'm here to tell you that it was more than a little tense. Definitely too tense for a vacation flight.

Five days after the ill-fated Alaska Airlines jet horror, I flew down to Mexico from LAX to mellow out in 90 degree heat, warm ocean surf and endless beach. Because I'd made the reservation several months earlier, there was a choice: cancel it to avoid flying on an Alaska Airlines MD-80 and try to make other arrangements. That was a complication and just wasn't going to happen. Or just hope the stabilizer flap on this Alaska jet -- and the one on the jet coming back -- would hold up. So it was the second option.

As we passengers assembled to get on the Alaska jet in LAX, I couldn't help but notice that everybody looked a little nervous. Now is not the time to make jokes as a way to break the tension, I thought to myself. I figured if I were to say, "Hey, look at that guy on the plane kicking the stabilizer with his boot! I bet he's just making sure it works!" I would have been met with universal scorn and possibly led away in a straitjacket.

So I shut up and, like everybody else, tried not to think about the mechanical condition of the tailfin stabilizers.

Once on the plane we were told there would be a delay. Some luggage put on the plane didn't have a corresponding passenger. So they had to pull out all the luggage, find the bag, take it off and reload the luggage. That took a half-hour.

Then they said their scanners detected another such bag. They had to do the same thing over again. That took another half-hour. It was getting hot and airless for everyone in the jet.

Finally, this thing is rolling toward the runway, and nobody is talking; everybody is thinking -trying to think about something else, pushing those eerie thoughts as far back as possible.

For some reason, I'm most nervous about the take-off. I've heard that's the time when mechanical failures of the fatal kind happen most often. But the plane takes off as everybody holds their breath, and everything seems normal.

As some passengers soon discover, alcoholic beverages are on the house due to the delay at the gate, and finally you can hear conversations; the tension had evaporated. But as soon as the jet hit some turbulence, the passenger tension meter immediately spiked up; everybody stopped talking.

As the flight progressed, a woman passenger in her 50s sitting mid-plane suddenly dropped her coffee and passed out. Stewardi were summoned and a flurry of activity ensued. An oxygen bottle appeared and a mask was pressed on her face. A doctor call was made, and it turned out there were five doctors on the plane heading to a convention. One was an E.R. pro and he took over. He was given the first-aid suitcase, and immediately asked the woman what medication she was on. He listened to her heart, took her blood pressure, and set up an I.V. drip for her, taping the bag onto the overhead luggage compartment.

Watching all this activity really made me want to cry. It was moving to see how everybody descended upon the afflicted woman, all strangers coordinating their help and offering her words of encouragement. Color came back to her face and she rested comfortably.

I don't think passengers in the front and back of the plane were aware anything unusual was going on mid-plane, until the stewardess got on the horn to say there was a "medical emergency." I imagined there must have been some bit of panic from those sections upon hearing the word "emergency," given the manic worry over mechanical safety.

Turned out the woman had taken too big a dose of high-blood-pressure pills, and her pulse had been abnormally low. When the jet landed safely, she was wheeled away in an ambulance when she couldn't stand on her own.

As far as I know, nobody kissed the ground upon arriving safely in Mexico. But there were surely some silent prayers of thanks.

A week later on the return flight, after several days of seeing news stories of damaged jackscrew discoveries on MD-80 series jets, the same scenario of quiet nervousness pervaded as the Alaska jet flew toward LAX. That flight went as smoothly as any I've been on, but nobody was truly relieved until the thing stopped at the gate at LAX.

Now, if you want to take a week to relax in Mexico or anywhere else, odds are the plane ride there will be safe and without incident.

But when you get in a jet to fly and they lock the hatches, you really never know how things are going to turn out. Things likely will work out, but they may not. All you can do is hope your number's not up, just yet.