United Diverts Again Stranding Hundreds In Belfast For Over 20 Hours

Filed Under: United

Last weekend United stranded hundreds of passengers in remote Goose Bay, Canada after diverting a flight due to a broken rudder. Everyone was safe and sound. The passengers ended up sleeping in barracks, some of which were unheated, while the crew headed to a hotel. But the real issue was that lack of communication from United and the slow response — the timeline of events shows that it took over 20 hours for United to rescue the folks, and they were delayed to their final destination by 32 hours.

Oops, they did it again. 

This time it was United 971, a Boeing 777 flying from Rome to Chicago that had to divert to Belfast, Northern Ireland — which is definitely part of the United Kingdom —  to off-load an unruly passenger. Seems simple enough. Except it wasn’t.

The crew eventually timed-out due to FAA limits on the amount of time they can work.

From NBC News:

“At one point the crew were serving ice creams and sorbets to passengers. We were taxying [sic] 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.”

The plane then returned to the gate and the passengers ended up sleeping in the terminal since there supposedly weren’t enough hotel rooms to go around.

The good news is that everyone is safe. The bad news is that United doesn’t seem to have learned much of anything from the Goose Bay fiasco in terms of communication and recovery during irregular operations.

After they “missed takeoff by two minutes because of FAA regulations of pilot times,” Saviano said the United passengers were told “they were looking for hotels for us and that they called as far as Dublin.” But accommodations were apparently hard to come by and United “had us sleeping on the baggage claim floor and then moved us to departures,” Saviano said. “They never sent us someone to explain what was going on.”

That must make those unheated barracks in Goose Bay seem luxurious by comparison. Belfast is a United station. You’d like to think they have some boots on the ground there that could have done a little better job of handling the situation. We don’t have all of the information yet, but here are several interesting issues to consider.

The passenger in question was actually being disruptive on the ground in Rome.

Yet they boarded him anyway. 

Stopping to off-load a passenger doesn’t guarantee that the crew will time out.

The compounding issue here is that the flight was already delayed 3 hours in Rome — it was supposed to depart at 1 pm, but didn’t actually leave until almost 4 pm. That consumed a substantial amount of the crew’s time buffer. Then it took about two hours to offload the guy, refuel the plane, perform inspections and get ready to fly again. At that point, they were still legal.

But apparently the plane took a mechanical and had to return to the gate for about an hour to resolve that. For those keeping score, that’s 3 hours of delay in Rome, 2 hours for the off-load in Belfast, and then another hour for the mechanical in Belfast. That’s about six hours of delay which ended up being two minutes too much. 

You might recall that the Goose Bay ordeal was prolonged by at least five hours because United had to deal with a mechanical issue on the rescue plane. At some point, this is no longer an anomaly; it’s a trend.

Then there’s the question of where to divert.

Last week, there weren’t a lot of options and besides, with a broken rudder, you’re not in a position to get picky. This time you’ve got Dublin and London relatively nearby, both of which would seemingly have more rooms as well as more options to reaccommodate the passengers on other flights. Maybe it was really an emergency and they had to get the plane on the ground fast? If so, they should be lucky I guess that they weren’t another hour out over the Atlantic Ocean at the point that they concluded he needed to be off the plane.


One issue we shouldn’t question is the crew time out.

Look, rules are rules. If you’re over by 2 minutes, you’re over by 2 minutes and nobody should suggest that it’s acceptable to pretend that you’re not. It seems like there wasn’t much of a sense of urgency to get in the air — I mean, I like ice cream as much (or more!) than the next guy. But at some point I’d rather go home. Maybe this didn’t actually slow them down at all, but the optics certainly don’t look that great.

This is sort of like having your point guard walk the ball up the court when you’re down by 5 with 28 seconds left in the game. At some point, every second counts.

Then the crew timed out in terms of continuing on to Chicago. Presumably they could they have flown to Boston or Newark instead. In the meantime, United could have ferried in a crew to swap in and fly the plane on to Chicago. Sure, it would be a messy day for the passengers who expected to fly from Rome to Chicago non-stop only to divert to both Belfast and Boston, but at least they’d still get there the same day.


All in all, this is a bad sequence of events for United with really poor optics. The broken rudder and unruly passenger could happen to any airline. It’s the lack of communication and inability to recover in a timely manner during irregular operations that is really putting United in the news right now. 

  1. I know rules are rules, but does the crew have any discretion about it?

    Several years ago, I was on a United 777 from SFO-NRT. We had been delayed at the gate for two hours – I can’t recall why, and after about 90 minutes of flying, the pilot announced we’d be diverting to SEA for a medical issue. (I had used points and was in First – the FA told me a passenger in the back was having a bad seizure.) We landed in SEA, they got the guy off the plane, but it took a while to refuel – we’d dumped some to land. At one point, the same FA told me that they were about to time out. At which point I started to get worried. Soon enough, we were taxiing and back on our way to NRT. I asked the FA what happened to the timing out, and she said the captain had decided to go.

    Now, maybe she was just trying to win some brownie points, but it always struck me as odd.

  2. Once again, United let their passengers down after a divert.

    Whatever about the lack of facilities in Goose Bay, this excuse holds no water in Belfast. It is an example of United treating their customers with contempt

    Unlike the comments on the Goose Bay divert, lets keep them here firmly on the way United looked after ( failed to look after) the passengers.

    Leave any geographical errors out of it ( Travis made none this time). Of course the crew were time limited, but leaving a plane load of passengers to sleep on the floor is unacceptable.

    I guess as long as United are allowed to treat passengers in this manner, they will continue to do so.

  3. Wow. Really don’t get how UA could have screwed this up so badly in such a short time.

    Belfast isn’t Goose Bay. It is a city of over 300K. How can not have been able to find hotel rooms for these folks? Sleeping on floors?

    Based on the comments I have read elsewhere, the airport staff seemed to go out of their way to try and accommodate the unexpected passengers. Kudos.

    Doesn’t anybody at United even give a rats ass? They should be ashamed.

  4. I agree with the other commenters. Belfast is an actual city with hotels and B&Bs… and United told all the passengers there are no hotel rooms available?!?!?!? That is a load of BS. Ok if it was Goose Bay or someplace in the middle of nowhere, I understand, but to give that as the excuse doesn’t make sense at all. It does look like the airport provided the passengers with blankets and pillows to sleep in the baggage claim terminal.

  5. Let’s go even further back to the original root of this problem. If he was being unruly at the gate in Rome, why did they let him fly!?!

    United has a real problem on their hands with this trend too. I was on a flight about a month ago from MIA to IAH that was delayed an hour because they had to remove someone who was too drunk to fly. I saw this guy at the gate. He was clearly unfit to fly then. I boarded expecting never to see him again. A little bit later there he was stumbling past me down the aisle reaking of booze. The gate had done nothing and the plane didn’t do anything until we were just about to take off.

    United is a mess.

  6. I was on a flight last week from Newark to Tampa. The flight was delayed for about 8 hours due to weather. A passenger was clearly drunk before boarding. She could hardly stand and was weaving as she walked. Since the other passengers noticed it, the gate agents should have. She was allowed to board. When she got to the back of the plane, she vomited all over the seats , floor, her suitcase, herself, etc. The passengers nearby were removed from the plane. She was taken off the plane by the police , covered in vomit as was her suitcase. She could not help but touch against passengers as she was was being taken out. The entire plane smelled disgusting. Her seat was then removed and a new one had to be brought in. I have no idea how they would have cleaned the floor. This delayed the flight at least another hour. After being delayed so many hours already, it made for a rather unpleasant flight. As compensation, United did not charge for their Direct TV. This woman should never have been allowed to board the plane. I don’t know what the qualifications are for being denied boarding but it was visibly obvious that she was drunk. I don’t get it.

  7. I flew one of the first UAL FCO-ORD flights a few weeks ago. FCO is one of the most inefficient airports I’ve ever visited. It would not surprise me if the flight out of Rome was delayed because of the awful security / passport control facilites. Do many US bound flights departing that terminal at the same time with not nearly enough personnel on the ground. I got to the airport 4 hours early and would have missed my flight (if half the plane wasn’t behind me in the security line). FCO needs to step up. UAL shouldn’t have boarded the unruly either. This sounds like a torturous travel day.

  8. I wonder veenajb, who claimed that there were “no hotel rooms in all of Belfast”, attempted to find one him/herself.

  9. Great point about flying to another U.S. destination that was 2 minutes closer. How about South Bend, IN? A convenient two hour bus ride, car rental or 20 minute flight from ORD. Detroit could also work. Or Cleveland. Anywhere that was remotely close and potentially driveable or bus able would have been 10x better then Belfast.

    These stories really make me wanna avoid United whenever humanly possible.

  10. I’m skeptical that UA could have easily changed the flight plan and diverted a second time in EWR or BOS. The plane would have already been loaded with the amount of fuel to take it to ORD, and the amount of time it would have taken to offload the excess fuel to comply with maximum landing weight restrictions in either EWR or BOS would likely have also exceeded the crew’s mandated work hours. It certainly looks bad for UA for something like this to happen twice in such a short span of time, but I’m sure that if another diversion were a viable option (especially at a place like EWR which is a huge hub), UA would have done that.

  11. In my opinion, the weak link in the Continental operation was always IROPS. Whatever the reason they could never get it right. It’s sad to see that this is now the norm for the combined United. At a minimum one would think an airline could get people from point A to B. I’m not saying it’s easy, but that’s what they do regardless of the wrenches that get thrown.

    So, not only do you have a crap inflight product UA, but you are also an unreliable form of transportation. Great Job!

  12. Maybe the map is off, but wouldn’t it make the most sense to divert to Paris or Toulouse?

  13. Perhaps Dublin would have made more sense, but it makes sense that they would have avoided London — given the likely landing and takeoff delays there it is likely the crew would have timed out even without further problems.

    It is also possible Belfast was more friendly in terms of fewer curfew restrictions? Not clear what time they landed and were planning to take back off but sounds like it was in the evening.

    But it’s pretty clear that in an airline with more motivated staff / better labor relations this wouldn’t have happened. My parents were once on a terribly delayed JetBlue flight that ended up taking off in the middle of the night, and the flight attendants were speed-reading the safety demo while the pilots zoomed down the taxiways so they could take off before the crew timed out.

  14. Smisek was a great numbers cruncher/ behind the scenes executive at Continental. However, he sucks when it comes to running a mega carrier like United in the CEO position.

    Time for the United board to pick a top exec. from Delta to run United properly.

  15. This story is now being covered by Irish media and it is now being shown that accommodation WAS available locally in Belfast but no one contacted the providers

    Link here … http://bit.ly/1H8OP0d

    On another note, Dublin has looked after diverts from UAL in the past and has a proven track record in dealing with same. Dublin ( and as best I know ) Belfast have no noise restrictions so that is not an issue here.

    As I said before, this boils down to how United failed to look after their passengers and the company appears to be have a track record of showing indifference to their customers

  16. No excuse. Just poor planning and a smidgen of work-to-rule. I’ve dealt with far worse diversions with far fewer resources and never messed it up this badly. A creative dispatcher with a cooperative crew could easily have gotten the aircraft to the other side of the Atlantic legally before timing out assuming no airworthiness issues.

  17. I would be interested in knowing why the chose Belfast as it seems like they started diverting to it while still over the South of France. Just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    Further, I am calling BS on the hotel room story. Belfast is a city of 330K+ people with a metro area of 580K. There is simply no way there weren’t a couple hundred hotel rooms left in the city. They may have cost a 300 Pounds last minute but Belfast is a largeish city. Further, there were hotels United probably has relationships with including IHG, Carlson Rezidor and Hilton. They chose not to spend the money to put these passengers up in a hotel.

  18. I give more credit to an airline that handles IRROPS impressively, than I do to an airline that never has IRROPS, because the first actually benefits pax and the second is a fiction.

    Show me someone who can admit error, apologize sincerely, back up his apology with action, sweat and resources, and I’ll show you someone I can do business with.

    An apology, long after a screw-up, from a company’s “Social Media Team” doesn’t count for nearly as much as meaningful changes in policies and procedures. Wouldn’t we all like to see a video from United describing in detail what they changed, after the guitar was lost? After the Goose Bay diversion? After this Belfast diversion? The narrator’s script would start with “boy, did we mess up”. Never ruin an apology with an excuse.

    United would wipe the floor with their competitors. Well, they’d certainly get my attention. Candour smells the same as honesty. It’s good for business.

  19. Per the map issue and when they chose to divert. The dashed line is just the projected (shortest distance) route between the two airports. But conditions on the day of travel including winds, weather, traffic, etc may have had them taking a more northerly route. Therefore, I don’t think any diversion happened until you see the U-turn just past the UK.

  20. I’ve flown United twice. Both times sucked and I vowed never to return. I’ve managed to avoid them and am eternally grateful that I have because it’s obvious they suck in virtually every way, ESPECIALLY where it matters (aka “operationally”). No wonder they’re polled as the worst airline in the US.

  21. I may challenge the point that we shouldn’t question the “time-out” rule. It was two minutes over. If a crew is unfit to fly two minutes over, do I really want them flying three minutes prior?
    I am one who would never want to push the button when it comes to safety. Even if it means not taking off or being delayed by a day, safety is most important. However, two minutes does not make a difference in one’s ability to fly. I don’t question the airline nor crew, rather I would think the FAA or some authority would have a hotline setup for these unique, one-off times where we are literally talking minutes over. If the airline realizes the crew will be over by a few minutes, given the situation this flight was in, I would hope they could contact the FAA or some authority who could provide an exception. Of course we can argue how many minutes over will be allowed, but at some point, you just have to use a reasonableness factor.

    But don’t want to take anything away from all the good points made in the article: if they were that close, the crew needs to hurry up and get in the air, lack of communication from UA, the un-reliable plans UA seems to have, etc.

    Also, does anyone else notice something odd in the picture with the police officer? You have the one guy with headphones facing to the right, but the two older individuals are facing to the left. This appears to be row 10, so maybe first/business class, but is someone flying facing the rear of the plane? Or am I missing something?

  22. Does a disruptive passenger fall under EC 261/2004? Because at least this time United could be dinged (unlike the last few diverts covered here).

  23. Woah. Travis gets political! “Belfast, Northern Ireland — which is definitely part of the United Kingdom,” is a lot braver than relocating Goose Bay a few miles. If that’s how you feel, go ahead and declare for the Orange.

    So it makes me wonder what are the differences between airline operations. Certainly, no line is DeLightful or AAwesome all the time, especially in IROPS. Still, I remember that every time I’ve had to sleep on the floor of an airport, it’s been on a UA ticket because of failure of UA to take care of me. And UA’s service personnel are consistently less cooperative when I’m out of town. (My local airport has a small UA outstation that comports with the local extreme generous hospitality culture and is fine to work with, but when they’re waiting six hours for equipment from ORD and there isn’t space on the alternative DL hub flight, what can they do?)

    We’ve seen a lot of UA failures in the past few weeks. Is it a matter of confirmation bias where we pay more attention because of recent similar ugliness? Maybe SQ and EK are having just as many diversions with customers sleeping on the ground in an average month as UA, but we’re just not paying attention. Somehow I doubt it, though. I’m going with the obvious theory: something is rotten in the state of Chicago.

  24. Does anyone have any data on transatlantic diversions? Would be really interesting to compare UA’s track record vs other carriers for the past few quarters. We’re all assuming that UA is diverting more than others, but that may be a fallacy even if UA has f***ed up royally in the last few weeks.

    Also, question for any US airline tech ops members or dispatchers – generally what is the procedure for finding hotel accommodations for passengers affected by a diversion to a foreign country? And how often is this protocol followed? I’ll venture to say that all US carriers are really bad at this, but some ops teams are better than others.

    Last, I agree with Travis that the fact that the plane sent to Goose Bay and the jet in this incident both developed mechanicals is troubling. Too much of a coincedence.

  25. Just a hypothetical:
    What would happen if all the passengers billed United for their time, such as what a consultant, therapist or lawyer would do? Let’s say I make $50K a year and divide by 2000 hrs (50 weeks x 40 hrs per week), my hourly would be $25/hr. Times 32 hrs for flight delay. Total would be $800 that UA owes me for my time. New FAA regulations to compensate passengers?? LOL…..

  26. @Mark — re only 2 minutes over. I *think* the problem is about allowing for contingencies at the destination airport. For example, ORD is fine at take-off but during the 7 or so hours to get there, ORD has t-storms, straight line winds, tornadoes, who the heck knows — and the flight has to circle/divert/etc. So the “only 2 minutes” may actually become 1-2 hours “over”.

    Maybe Sean M. can chime in here — he’s the expert, I’m just the guy in 1A… 😉

  27. GringoLogo

    My understanding is that once you’re in the air, it doesn’t really matter. The flight is “blocked” as taking a certain amount of time, and that’s what counts.

  28. Many moons ago I was on a Continental flight (Vegas to NYC red eye) that had to land in Denver at 2:30 am for a sick passenger…plane was overweight as fuel was not discharged and needed to be checked out by a ground crew…no ground crew so had to wait until someone came in at 4:30. They took us off the plane and put us into the empty terminal and tossed some soda cans on the check in desk. Plane was. Inspected but then the crew was over their time so we had to wait for a new crew….finally took off at 10 am,

    Long story short, the good news is the United is as bad as old Continental!

  29. Looks like we’ve got a pattern going here. Currently booking two Delta flights. You better believe United is NOT an option for me now. Even if they were the cheapest, absolutely not. I’m old enough to remember what air travel USED to be and how enjoyable it was. Even for a few years after deregulation, it was still a civil affair. Now you need to be equipped with survival skills and have supplies in your carry-on just to handle United’s incompetence.

  30. My family was on this flight.

    This guy was unruly on the ground, in line at the TERRIBLE Rome airport. I don’t know why he was let on the plane. Once on the plane he berated the purser, demanded food, and was in the overhead bin at least 5 times in the first hour of the flight, changing between the 3 shirt/vest combinations that he had. I don’t think he was intending harm, but wasn’t stable either. They did the right thing getting him off the plane.

    The crew on board did a great job. In Belfast, they had to refuel (they dumped a bunch of fuel over the ocean to land), redo paper work, find and the disruptive passenger’s luggage in the hold. I’m guessing the police interviewed some of the crew. I didn’t see anything about an additional mechanical issue as we weren’t at a physical gate (it was a outside staircase) and we only started the engines once. Ice cream from dinner was served by the stewards and stewardesses, heck what could they do to make things go faster outside the plane? There was a sense of urgency as the purser said the pilot is very motivated to get the flight off the ground.

    The Belfast airport staff did a great job. They kept the cafe open late, and seemed to handle the extra crowd pretty easily. It is a busy airport as it appeared to be a hub for Easy Jet.

    I don’t understand why another crew could not have been flown in from somewhere in the UK or Europe in the subsequent 20 hours. I know that you don’t have extra 777 crews just sitting around waiting for bad stuff to happen, but 20 hours is a long time.

    To make matters even worse, for some reason the flight crew was picked up late from their hotel for the flight the next day, making the flight getting out of Belfast late by 75 minutes or so on Sunday. That lack of planning and execution is inexcusable. Many passengers missed their connections in Chicago and had to stay in the Hilton at OHare.

    United has one flight into this airport daily and only one actual employee at the station. They contract the rest of the service out to another airline. There were no boots on the ground as most of these folks had already gone home by the time we decided we would have to deplane.

    United did comp us all our flight costs for the Rome Chicago segment plus a future flight voucher. This was much more expensive than just putting us up in a hotel. I figure that between lost ticket revenue, food comp tickets at the Belfast Airport, additional lodging in Chicago, dumped fuel etc. this unruly passenger cost them between $350,000 and $500,000, plus a ton of other headaches.

    I’m not going to jump on a United flight anytime soon, and will definitely choose not to fly out of Rome if I’m lucky enough to make it back to Italy again.

  31. These stories make me yearn for the old Continental Airlines. We were half way down the runway on take off at LGW to EWR when the pilot slammed on the brakes. That began a delay of over 8 hours. It was, however, the nicest delayed I’ve ever had.
    I was in biz class and we were given meal vouchers to eat elsewhere in the terminal and in the lounge we were kept completely informed. They brought extra food to the lounge and apparently the airport staff (including the lounge staff) stayed right up until we boarded the new plane, which had arrived from the morning flight from EWR. They updated us nearly every 30 minutes and kept the bar and snacks constantly refilled.
    At that time they had begun code sharing with Virgin, which gave free limos. MY CO ticket did not have a limo but they got me one anyway when I explained that I live in Manhattan and getting a NJ taxi to go there at 2 AM would not be easy. I was told by folks in economy that they were also treated very well with plenty of food and drink vouchers and consistent announcements.

    Ahh… the good old days.

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to participate in the discussion, please adhere to our commenting guidelines. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *