The text alert from United Airlines sounded ominous.
“Your 2:13 p.m. United flight to Chattanooga is delayed because of unforeseen circumstances,” it said. “This is an unusual situation and we’re working hard to solve it. We value your time and we’re sorry for the inconvenience.”
Unusual was putting it mildly.
And the “situation” wasn’t news to the 50 passengers on Flight 5277 on Oct. 16. They received the alert after the problem arose, after their Chicago-to-Chattanooga flight returned to O’Hare International Airport mid-flight.
Vince Fallon, who was traveling from Omaha to Chattanooga via Chicago for a business meeting, said the United Express flight, a daily flight operated by partner SkyWest Airlines, started out without any major issues.
Fallon and another passenger on the plane said there was a last-minute aircraft swap, from one type of regional jet to another due to a mechanical issue, which changed their seat assignments but didn’t delay the flight. Flight tracker FlightAware says the plane left the gate at 2:17 p.m. local time, just a few minutes behind schedule, and took off at 2:45 p.m. It was due to land in Chattanooga less than two hours later, at 5 p.m. local time.
More than halfway into the flight – Fallon figures they got to the Kentucky border from a map of the flight route a friend sent – when the pilot told passengers he had some bad news.
“We’re going to turn and go back to O’Hare,” Fallon said, recalling the gist of the pilot’s message.
There was a collective grumble.
Fallon and passenger Jill Lohsen recall the pilot saying the plane, a 76-seat Embraer 175, was “too large” to land in Chattanooga.
Lohsen said that didn’t make sense because she’s been on Delta flights to Chattanooga on the same plane.
“The pilot, nor the flight attendants, did not have any information for us and just kept saying they would figure it out when we land,” she said via e-mail.
Flight 5277 landed back in Chicago at 4:29 p.m. and passengers were greeted with Cheez-Its, pretzels and water, and a new flight scheduled to leave within the hour.
“We still were only told that there was a mistake, saying we could take the larger plane to Chattanooga, but no real explanation,” Lohsen said.
A text message with details on the new flight offered more insight into the reason for the u-turn: “We’re sorry for returning to Chicago. The airport in Chattanooga is unable to assist with ground operational requirements for your current aircraft type. We assigned your flight a new plane.”
SkyWest spokeswoman Marissa Snow did not provide any other details, saying only that the 76-seat Embraer aircraft used on the first flight to Chattanooga was “just a different aircraft than typical for ground personnel there.” She would not elaborate on why the airline used the plane on the route in the first place or didn’t check with the airport to see about necessary ground crews.
Passengers were put on a 50-seat Bombardier CRJ 200, which United typically uses on the flight. Passengers finally arrived at the gate in Chattanooga just before 8:30 p.m. local time, more than three hours late.
Fallon took the delay in stride and said he’s had worse weather delays.
United refunded the Chicago-Chattanooga leg of passengers’ flights and gave them a $300 flight voucher or miles for their trouble.
Fallon took the voucher and plans to visit his brother in Boston.
Lohsen termed the U-turn a “very strange experience.”
“It was my first time flying United so not the best impression,” she said.
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