United’s Belfast Diversion, With Passengers Forced to Sleep on the Floor, Teaches Us Something.

A week after a United flight diverted to Goose Bay and put up passengers in military barracks while crew stayed in hotel rooms, another United flight diverts to Belfast and leaves passengers to sleep on the airport floor.

United 971 from Rome to Chicago turned around as it hit the Atlantic on Saturday.

The flight diverted to offload a disruptive passenger.

A spokesman for the Police Service of Northern Ireland said the male passenger accused of being disruptive was in custody at a police station in Antrim but could not provide further details.

Sliter said he heard from fellow passengers that the man had allegedly been “extremely verbally abusive” to a woman even before he boarded the flight in Rome.

“While he was on the flight he had constantly gone to the bathroom to change his shirt four or five times and was staring at people in a creepy way. My understand is that an air marshal notified the flight attendants who spoke with the captain who chose to land.”

Then by the time the plane got back on the runway and prepared to depart, pilots were 2 minutes over their maximum duty time which would have allowed them to proceed.

“At one point the crew were serving ice creams and sorbets to passengers. We were taxying out to leave, refueled, we were on the main runway – then the captain announced it was two minutes over the time they could do time in cockpit due to federal work regulations. People thought he was joking.”

I’m not going to second guess the decision to divert. I don’t have the facts regarding the passenger in question, though with hindsight and full information it may turn out to have been a poor choice overall (or at least to divert to Belfast).

United didn’t provide hotel rooms, saying they tried but couldn’t find availability.

“The captain indicated that they had tried extremely hard and called multiple places but that there were not many hotel rooms available,” he said.

I’m skeptical that there were no lodging solutions available. There may have been none available out of a handful tried, that were nearest to the airport, that could accommodate large chunks of passengers rather than splitting up into several groups, or that would have extended credit to United.

I don’t think it’s wise to rely on the airline in these sorts of situations, though, find your own lodging and worry about reimbursement later, you can look to the airline (what a story it would be, ‘airline diverts to Belfast and won’t cover hotel cost while claiming no hotels were available’) and also to the credit card used to purchase tickets.

The key here though is communication. In the case of the Goose Bay diversion, as well as this one, the primary complaint of passengers is lack of information.

These are difficult situations. The pilot and airline makes a decision to get the plane on the ground, and they pick a spot based on a variety of factors and do so without perfect information. So I don’t tend to second guess that.

But in general, this incident aside, airlines, airports, and governments need to all be better reacting when these situations occur.

  • Getting immigration and security processes up and running, or implementing a plan that waives some of those requirements within a specified area so that passengers can not only get off the plane but be taken to an area of reasonable comfort where they receive access to needed amenities.

  • Providing information and reassurance. Airlines have contact information for the vast majority of passengers. They can call, email and text. They can assign a response team to take contact from passengers and answer questions, even if the answer is just ‘we’re working on it’, to reduce some of the uncertainty that makes the situation that much more difficult.

Lack of information is a common theme across events like this. Greater certainty, recognizing that these are rapidly developing situations, would help passengers not just know what to expect but also know how to plan. Should they stay by the gate? Should they find their own hotel room? When should they be back at the airport? Where can they get real and reliable updates?

These incidents aren’t especially common, but they are common enough that airlines should invest in better procedures.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The disruptive passenger should be held liable for the passengers suffering Maybe $1,000 each , maybe more . I believe anyone who causes a plane to divert by their bad behavior or gets duct taped to their seat etc. should be on the no fly list forever . We are very lucky to travel the world by flying . No one should take this for granted .

  2. I really am shocked at how often planes divert for “unruly” passengers. Unless it is extremely bad like they are actively trying to hurt somebody, hand cuff them to a seat and get on with it. Especially if there is an air marshall onboard.

  3. If I understand correctly, the Goose Bay diversion required people to stay in the barracks. This one seems like passengers had the choice to book their own accommodations but chose not to. Were pax able to book their own rooms in Belfast regardless of reimbursement?

  4. Wow… Sounds like UA’s Operations team really dropped the ball. To miss it by 2 minutes? Somebody wasn’t really paying attention.

  5. Couldn’t they have gone to Newark instead or Chicago and remained legal if it was only an issue of 2 mins? Then have different relief pilots take them on to Chicago or house the pax in Newark area hotels?

  6. Of course they could have done many things but United didn’t. This episode will fade away in a day or two. The passengers will swear that they will never fly United again – until the next time UA has the most convenient flight. Some of the passengers with status will get some miles from United but the bottom line is that this cost United a lot and they weren’t anxious to add to the cost by booking a slew of hotel rooms at rack rate.

  7. Am I cynical because I read boarding area reports or did reading boarding area make me cynical? Don’t book with an OTA; don’t rent a car unless you take pictures before, during and after your rental; expect to be hassled by someone, probably TSA, when you fly; don’t expect the airlines to do anything but rob you with a multitude of ancillary fees when you fly and that’s even if they get you to your destination on time or at least before your event occurs; don’t check a bag because it might get lost; don’t carry on a bag because there won’t be space in an overhead bin . . . Why does anybody travel anywhere anymore?

  8. keep on flying United and keep complaining when things happen and go wrong
    You have a choice of airlines remember all!
    United is essentially a crap airline with an only marginal mediocre ff program that’s been hugely devalued in almost everyway way
    Its their choice and ours

  9. I’m not sure what it means to be over by two minutes. In other words if the pilots could work for 8 hours, and they were at 8:02 when they were taxiing at BFS, then how could they have taken off in the first place? In other words if they took off at 7:59 they’d cross the limit pretty quickly after takeoff, right?

    Or does the rule permit them to keep flying if they take off before the limit (which doesn’t quite make sense to me)?

  10. This is ridiculous. There are plenty of other airports/cities to which united could have flown after offloading the disruptive passenger. DUB, LHR, MAN, KEF, even BOS or EWR are probably within range. United is doing extremely poorly as an operational matter.

  11. Gary you hit it right – airlines can’t anticipate every incident but they can put better procedures in place to deal with emergencies. In this case (like Goose Bay) the diversion airport was the first bad choice but hard to second guess pilots in the heat of battle. So UA should have a crisis management team that is available on a moment’s notice to start working the phones and figure out how to get a new crew there and how to accommodate the customers.

    UA has struck out 2x this week – and there are not the first times (recall the incident where passengers were stuck in Beijing for 3 days?)

    Clearly UA management doesn’t think it is worthy to invest money and personnel for incident planning. Maybe it needs a good kick in the teeth from the EU (which will likely fine the airline) or DOT.

  12. And here I ask again: Who still flies United? 2 minutes? Why I feel something fishy about this? Did they do that on purpose? Couldn’t they “hurry up” a little bit? What happens if they get headwind and the flight delays for over 2 minutes? This is total BS!!!!!

  13. Problem was that it was Belfast. Basically, you can’t get from there to anywhere else on another carrier. Also, the place isn’t exactly overrun with hotels. Why didn’t they go to Dublin, LHR or another UK airport? What a really stupid UA kind of decision.

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