Thursday, January 20, 2011

Dire Warnings

The trip got off to a shaky start. In the final hour prior to launch, as we were reviewing the paperwork, my dispatcher called. The Moscow weather had him spooked. He wanted to change the weather diversion alternate from Sheremetyeyvo, which is just north of Moscow, to Hamburg, Germany, two hours southwest. That meant putting on another 25,000 or so pounds of fuel. “You mean all of west Russia is hammered?” I asked.

It was, he said, or at least was trending that way. We would have only enough fuel for one shot at Domodedovo before bolting for Hamburg. It could get interesting. We gathered up the papers―a small National Forest's worth―and headed to the jet.

We got out of the gate on time, but as we took the runway the cabin call chime dinged. Bad. They're not supposed to call us during takeoff, but I had not yet advanced the throttles. Frank looked at me, eyes asking, “Should I answer it?” I nodded.

"Sick passenger,” Frank said. “Kid throwing up all over the place.”

“Let's abort,” I said. We got clearance to exit the runway and stopped. I sent Bill, the relief pilot, back. He reported that the kid looked like warmed-over-death, although his mother insisted that he was only “air sick” and said we should go on. Bill said several other passengers told him the kid had been throwing up for an hour in the gate room.

I called the chief flight attendant―known at this airline as the “Purser”―to the cockpit. “What's your recommendation?” I asked.

She wanted no part of that deal. Neither did I. If we flew him, we most certainly would be compelled to divert and put that kid off. A costly problem. We called for the paramedics and went back to the gate.

The EMTs said the choice to bring him back was a good one. They loaded him and his miffed mother into an ambulance. Two other family members, all Russians, debarked. It took our ground crew an hour to located their bags in the cargo hold and get them off.

And, get this: the airline booked them all a paid hotel room and gave them meal vouchers, even though their problems weren't our fault, but in reality cost us a bundle in fuel. Remember that, when you read about how lousy our customer service is.

We blasted out of Dulles an hour and a half late and suffered the long night crossing in the high latitudes. The sun finally came up as we got into Russian airspace. The dispatcher's dire warnings about the weather kept us busy watching the weather at Moscow, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Stockholm and Hamburg.

As we began the descent we saw Moscow 50 miles out. Fifty miles! We were told to expect to see the runway at a quarter mile! The sunlit city lay sprawled out in front of us and got ever bigger.

Oh, well. One day it will pay―and pay big―to play it safe. No complaints from me about that weather forecast.

The layover? That's another story. See the next post.

Moscow all dressed for winter