An American 787’s Interesting Transpacific Diversion

An American 787’s Interesting Transpacific Diversion

33

A Tokyo-bound American Airlines flight had to divert due to an onboard medical emergency. However, the airport the airline decided to divert to might surprise some people.

American’s Los Angeles to Tokyo flight diverts to Seattle

On Tuesday, November 8, 2022, American Airlines flight AA169 was scheduled to fly from Los Angeles (LAX) to Tokyo Haneda (HND). The flight was supposed to depart at 11:56PM and arrive at 5:05AM two days later. It was operated by a roughly two-year-old Boeing 787-8 with the registration code N870AX.

The flight departed more or less on time, and took off from LAX at 12:15AM local time. The 787 initially flew up the California coast, and then flew a bit more off the coast, over the Pacific Ocean. Around 4hr40min after departure, after having just passed Kodiak, Alaska, a passenger onboard had a medical emergency.

The crew made the decision to divert. However, the emergency presumably wasn’t life threatening, as the flight didn’t divert to Anchorage, which was only 250 miles away. Instead the Boeing 787 returned to the lower 48, and flew to Seattle. From there it took just under three hours for the plane to land in Seattle.

An American Boeing’s 787 diversion to Seattle

In the end, passengers had a 7.5+ hour flight from Los Angeles to Seattle, landing there shortly before 8AM.

People often wonder why flights don’t divert to the nearest airport in situations like this. When an emergency isn’t life threatening, diversion decisions often consider logistics and not just the closest airport. I assume that American’s operations department decided the airline would be better equipped to have customer service representatives available, find accommodations for passengers, find a new crew, etc., at an airport like Seattle rather than Anchorage.

I will say, I do wonder what kind of a medical emergency can wait for three hours, but can’t wait for seven hours (roughly the distance remaining to Tokyo). For that matter, it seems somewhat risky to return to the lower 48 and fly past Canada. If the emergency became more serious and a diversion to Canada was needed, the immigration logistics would have become much more complicated.

The Boeing 787 diverted while near Anchorage

The flight will get to Tokyo 24 hours late

American now had a planeload full of Tokyo-bound passengers, and a crew that had timed out. While American was planning on growing in Seattle, the airline doesn’t have a crew base there, so finding a replacement crew would take some effort.

Furthermore, while Haneda Airport doesn’t formally have a curfew, in practice the airport has virtually no flights between 12AM and 4:30AM, so I imagine that was a consideration in terms of staffing. Furthermore, with many passengers presumably connecting beyond Tokyo, it made sense to still arrive at a time that’s good for connections, so that as few people as possible got stuck.

In the end, the decision was made to reschedule the Seattle to Tokyo Haneda flight for early the following morning. As mentioned above, passengers arrived in Seattle shortly before 8AM, and ended up taking off shortly before 2AM the following morning. The flight is now enroute to Tokyo Haneda, and should land shortly before 5AM, 24 hours behind schedule.

The Boeing 787 is now enroute to Tokyo Haneda

Funny enough the November 8 and November 9 AA169 services are currently scheduled to land in Tokyo at exactly the same time.

AA169 November 8 flight status
AA169 November 9 flight status

Bottom line

Passengers on Tuesday’s late night American Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo were in for quite an adventure. An onboard medical emergency over Alaska caused the flight to divert to Seattle, and the plane was in the air for around 7.5 hours.

Unfortunately once in Seattle the crew timed out (as you’d expect), so passengers were accommodated in hotels, and ended up departing around 2AM the following morning. The flight will get to Tokyo almost exactly 24 hours behind schedule, at the same time as the next day’s Los Angeles to Tokyo flight.

What do you make of this American Airlines diversion?

Conversations (33)
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  1. Laxman Guest

    I was on that plane and it was so frustrating and tiering.. I’ll never go on American Airlines again

  2. jay dee Guest

    I was on the original flight. We were told after landing it was a flight attendant who was “not feeling well.” Many passengers saw her deplane via wheelchair but with no medical equipment or assistance. I saw the medic walk on and walk off in no hurry so clearly not life threatening. From the body language of the other flight crew, they seemed visibly annoyed about this incident. One of them told me, when I...

    I was on the original flight. We were told after landing it was a flight attendant who was “not feeling well.” Many passengers saw her deplane via wheelchair but with no medical equipment or assistance. I saw the medic walk on and walk off in no hurry so clearly not life threatening. From the body language of the other flight crew, they seemed visibly annoyed about this incident. One of them told me, when I inquired about the health of passenger (hoping they were okay), that “yeah, she’s fine. She didn’t even need medics” and he continued to roll his eyes and shook his head.

    Thankfully I found another flight out on another airline but I feel for everyone who had to wait 24 hours.

    From a passenger standpoint AA didn’t handle it well but that’s seemingly par for the course these days.

    I can only imagine how stressful being a flight attendant is. That being said, I was so impressed by the friendliness of the ANA cabin crew. They were amazing. AA crew and the United crew (for my return flight) were rather rude and unpleasant. I fly internationally a few times a year and I’m starting to notice a trend in foreign carriers vs US carriers with regard to customer service. Wonder if that’s just me or others see it too.

  3. SH Guest

    All airlines use a service called MedLink, which provides medical advice to the crew and makes the decision (and takes liability) for diverts, where to divert, and arranging medical services upon landing. The crew just relay the conditions and Medlink decides the rest.

  4. RF Diamond

    It's going to get very confusing at the baggage carousels when passengers arrive at HND.

  5. Clark Guest

    Never been through Anchorage... can their airport serve a 787? There are airports in much bigger cities that can't

    1. S_LEE Member

      ANC serves a lot of large cargo planes like 747s, so there's no reason why they can't serve a 787 technically, but they can't serve the catering and lodging for sure. The airport is mostly for cargo planes, not passenger planes.

    2. Frederick Polsky Guest

      ANC regularly served passenger 747s until longer ranges and the opening of former Soviet airspace enabled flights to bypass the fuel stop in ANC. It's possible the issue could be with the nature of the medical emergency, as Seattle has greater medical capability than Anchorage does. Alaskans still have to fly to Seattle for certain advanced medical care.

  6. John Macmillan Guest

    Could have continued straight back to LAX or SFO. LAX preferably as would have stand by crew and not that much further gluing time from SEA. Quick refuel, new crew and pax on their way in two shakes of a lambs tail.

  7. iamhere Guest

    I wonder what kind of emergency is an emergency enough to land but clearly does not require immediate attention. On the other hand, I think it was a smart move to choose Seattle as it is in the continental US and because of American's operations there it would be easier.

  8. MSR Guest

    All medical conditions are treated accordingly and no two are the same. This wasn’t mentioned in your article. You need to have the details to judge and/or access the situation. This is great fodder but there isn’t concrete info to back your inconvenience.

  9. RTWRob Guest

    Whew! We were on the return flight AA 170 on the 9th, and our original booking in the evening of the 8th was canceled! By the way, the food and service on the AA 787 flight out of Haneda was fantastic! Took JL on the way over and the business class seats were cramped and uncomfortable by comparison!

  10. kenish Guest

    If the medical emergency was extremely urgent (stroke, etc) I'm sure they would have landed at ANC. YVR is the closest airport that could have handled the 787 itself, the patient, and passengers...but SEA is only a few more minutes' flying time. It's possible the passenger had sudden symptoms of a communicable disease. If they continued to Japan (double the distance), everyone would be quarantined on the aircraft until authorities cleared it. It's also possible...

    If the medical emergency was extremely urgent (stroke, etc) I'm sure they would have landed at ANC. YVR is the closest airport that could have handled the 787 itself, the patient, and passengers...but SEA is only a few more minutes' flying time. It's possible the passenger had sudden symptoms of a communicable disease. If they continued to Japan (double the distance), everyone would be quarantined on the aircraft until authorities cleared it. It's also possible the passenger passed away- repatriation would be extremely expensive and difficult for the family.

    Japan has top-notch healthcare but most Americans have sparse or no health insurance coverage outside the US. Hope the patient is OK.

  11. DCYukon Guest

    Par for the course for AA. I stopped in SEA twice on AA nonstops between DFW and NRT in the late 90s. One was a medical emergency for a guy across the aisle who may or may not have had a heart attack. The other was to checkout the plane after an over-eager cockpit crew member over-rotated and scraped the tail on takeoff. In both cases, we hadn’t reached the West Coast yet and were...

    Par for the course for AA. I stopped in SEA twice on AA nonstops between DFW and NRT in the late 90s. One was a medical emergency for a guy across the aisle who may or may not have had a heart attack. The other was to checkout the plane after an over-eager cockpit crew member over-rotated and scraped the tail on takeoff. In both cases, we hadn’t reached the West Coast yet and were heavy with fuel for the long flight. In the first case, the sick passenger received oxygen on board and was evacuated once we reached the gate. We continued our flight shortly thereafter. In the second situation, all sorts of customs and immigration rules were probably violated as they took us all off the plane through domestic gates to a hotel to continue our flight with new flight number and boarding passes but same crew, along with our duty free purchases and luggage. . This included foreign passengers who had already technically exited the US and never went back through immigration when we went to the hotel or handed in a new I94. Crew deadheaded on aircraft for the return.

  12. Rich Guest

    Same exact thing happened to me on a flight I was on. JAL from SAN to NRT in fall of 2019. Passenger had cardiac arrest at roughly the same spot in the flight. After heroic measures the passenger didn't make it. It wasn't clear why they then commenced the diversion since the passenger death had made seeking further care moot. Nevertheless, the flight was diverted to Seattle rather than the closer ANC. Crew timed out....

    Same exact thing happened to me on a flight I was on. JAL from SAN to NRT in fall of 2019. Passenger had cardiac arrest at roughly the same spot in the flight. After heroic measures the passenger didn't make it. It wasn't clear why they then commenced the diversion since the passenger death had made seeking further care moot. Nevertheless, the flight was diverted to Seattle rather than the closer ANC. Crew timed out. After a mechanical delay the next day, we arrived ~ 30 hours after we were scheduled to. I assume the logistical considerations are probably what forced the diversion. Of note, despite their reputation, JAL did very little to make the situation more bearable for passengers. Very traumatic experience.

  13. DTS Guest

    I am not in the airline industry, so I am certain there are many aspects that are not apparent to me.
    I am in healthcare. Solely from a logical standpoint, a medical emergency, no matter if acutely life threatening or not, should be addressed at the closest suitable location. There is basically no acute medical service that can not be provided in Anchorage. Besides transplant, they basically do everything up there.

    1. BradStPete Member

      I am an advanced practice Registered Nurse (Surgery) and former Flight Attendant. I am quite inclined to agree with you to a point. I have been a pax on several flights in the past 10 years when the crew requested assistance from pax MD. RN, EMS. In those situations I was surprised ( and pleased ) how much consideration the crew (flight deck and F/A) gave our consideration. Simply not all medical emergencies are the...

      I am an advanced practice Registered Nurse (Surgery) and former Flight Attendant. I am quite inclined to agree with you to a point. I have been a pax on several flights in the past 10 years when the crew requested assistance from pax MD. RN, EMS. In those situations I was surprised ( and pleased ) how much consideration the crew (flight deck and F/A) gave our consideration. Simply not all medical emergencies are the same and require closed avail airport. Consideration must also be given to crew and pax RE immigration, hotel avail etc etc.

  14. Steve Guest

    Very poor decision making by the captain.
    I flew for the airlines on trans Pacific and Atlantic routes for many years, and the moment I was informed of a passenger in distress I diverted to the nearest airport with medical facilities. We used Medlink to get a doctor on the radio and he or she would talk us through the immediate care while determining where the nearest facility was. In this case not only...

    Very poor decision making by the captain.
    I flew for the airlines on trans Pacific and Atlantic routes for many years, and the moment I was informed of a passenger in distress I diverted to the nearest airport with medical facilities. We used Medlink to get a doctor on the radio and he or she would talk us through the immediate care while determining where the nearest facility was. In this case not only did the captain put the passenger at risk, but made the trip much longer since a stop in Anchorage would have been much shorter for the rest of the passengers while insuring the passenger in distress got medical care as fast as possible.

    1. Nick Guest

      Well, you aren’t there Captain. I’m a 787 currently. Bad form for one Captain to throw stones at another from
      the comfort of his armchair without being privy to all the facts. Which you do not have.

  15. Chris Guest

    Can’t comment on not diverting to Anchorage (although others have covered it off nicely), but I will say there wouldn’t be a point in diverting to Canada. The closest airport that could take the aircraft would have been Vancouver (unless they were prepared to land at Cold Lake - a military base in northern Alberta), and if you’re going to Vancouver you might as well go to Seattle and avoid the immigration hassle.

  16. Stacey Melcher Guest

    My daughter was on this flight! She had saved up money for years. She said it looked like the medical emergency was a flight attendant and she was sitting in a wheelchair drinking a cup of coffee when she departed the plane! Also, she was offered no hotel room and had to sit in the airport!

    1. Eskimo Guest

      So was it your daughter on a wheelchair drinking coffee that saw a flight attendant having medical emergency?
      The pilot who departed the planes was also female or just identified as female?
      And shouldn't the pilot get a hotel room so she can get her mandatory rest?

      Confusing pronouns, and it's just going to get worse when you can mismatch gender at will.

    2. JS Guest

      Don’t be a dick. The meaning is clear, even if the grammar leaves something to be desired.

    3. Jackson Guest

      It wasn’t confusing at all…

  17. pstm91 Diamond

    Per the screenshots, both flights in the air are AA 169. How does that work in a scenario like this? Surely one of them must be renumbered on the traffic controllers side of things.

    1. ORDnHKG Guest

      @ pstm91 - usually the call sign will add a letter or a number to the original flight number. In this case the original flight number had added a letter become American 169P

  18. derek Guest

    I was once on a FRA-LAX flight that diverted due to a man having urinary retention, often prostate related. It was an emergency but not a life and death emergency. The plane landed at Keflavik rather than the closer airport in the Faroe Islands.

    There are about 4 urology practices in Anchorage though one group has a bunch of urologists (MD's).

    A high risk pregnancy might be better in Seattle, particularly if labor...

    I was once on a FRA-LAX flight that diverted due to a man having urinary retention, often prostate related. It was an emergency but not a life and death emergency. The plane landed at Keflavik rather than the closer airport in the Faroe Islands.

    There are about 4 urology practices in Anchorage though one group has a bunch of urologists (MD's).

    A high risk pregnancy might be better in Seattle, particularly if labor is just started.

    There is just one part time neuro-ophthalmologist in all of Alaska.

    Disclaimer: all these facts are online, not guaranteed to be reliable.

  19. SadStateofOurCountry Guest

    Yes, the dreaded and terrible Japanese healthcare system, which is only in the top 3 in the world.

    Who wouldn't rather deal with the great US healthcare system...

    1. derek Guest

      In some respects, the US is better than Japan. The US got Covid vaccines earlier and more of them than Japan.

      On the other hand, pirfenidone was approved in Japan several years before the FDA approved it.

      I don't believe Japan is #3. Those type of studies usually awards Cuba as #1 even though Cuban health care is terrible. They lack lots of stuff.

  20. Tim Dunn Diamond

    Presumably there were 3 pilots which would have allowed 12 hours of duty time. Any delay would have put the flight over the pilots' allowable time. A diversion would have required stopping the flight at the diversion point or return to the mainland.
    If there were 4 pilots, there was sufficient pilot time to divert and continue the flight with even 2 hours on the ground.

    The real question is why they really needed...

    Presumably there were 3 pilots which would have allowed 12 hours of duty time. Any delay would have put the flight over the pilots' allowable time. A diversion would have required stopping the flight at the diversion point or return to the mainland.
    If there were 4 pilots, there was sufficient pilot time to divert and continue the flight with even 2 hours on the ground.

    The real question is why they really needed to divert but could justify flying 3 hours back to Seattle. Sounds like a passenger just didn't want to deal w/ the Japanese health system.

  21. Goforride Guest

    I'm sure it was because there was no staff available in ANC in the middle of the night to handle the passengers and AA doesn't have infrastructure for a 787. Additionally, it would be much more difficult for the passenger, and anyone traveling with him/her to be stuck in ANC.

    The decision to divert to SEA, rather than ANC was made in consultation with the passenger, AA medical, AA operations, and AA customer service. These decisions are not made casually.

  22. anon Guest

    If AA doesn't have a crew base in SEA, how is that an improvement over ANC???

    1. dfw88 Guest

      SEA is much closer to a crew base than ANC, plus it has more flights on AA they can use to deadhead some crew up there.

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BradStPete Member

I am an advanced practice Registered Nurse (Surgery) and former Flight Attendant. I am quite inclined to agree with you to a point. I have been a pax on several flights in the past 10 years when the crew requested assistance from pax MD. RN, EMS. In those situations I was surprised ( and pleased ) how much consideration the crew (flight deck and F/A) gave our consideration. Simply not all medical emergencies are the same and require closed avail airport. Consideration must also be given to crew and pax RE immigration, hotel avail etc etc.

2
SadStateofOurCountry Guest

Yes, the dreaded and terrible Japanese healthcare system, which is only in the top 3 in the world. Who wouldn't rather deal with the great US healthcare system...

2
iamhere Guest

I wonder what kind of emergency is an emergency enough to land but clearly does not require immediate attention. On the other hand, I think it was a smart move to choose Seattle as it is in the continental US and because of American's operations there it would be easier.

1
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