United Flight Diverted To Midway Island

Filed Under: United

I know this story is a couple of days old now, but I can’t get over how scary this must have been. For those of you not familiar with it, here’s a CNN report of the situation:


Basically a United 777 flight from Honolulu to Guam had a 3.5 hour delay on the ground in Honolulu, and then less than halfway through the flight there was an “odor” in the cabin. The captain made the decision to divert the flight to Midway Island, a tiny and mostly deserted island in the middle of the Pacific.

According to a passenger, per a CNN article:

A passenger, Karen von Merveldt-Guevara of Sedona, Arizona, said the pilot spoke of smoke and failure to the radar and other systems.

“The captain said there was smoke in the cockpit and the radar failed and other electronic systems were failing, so they had to land. I think they landed old-school. They did an amazing job to get there safely,” Merveldt-Guevara said.

“At one point there was one drop of about 40 feet. After that turbulence, it got really silent. I thought everybody was praying, and we were coming in on the wings of faith. We were all praying,” Merveldt-Guevara told CNN.


Then passengers sat in a gymnasium for seven hours while a replacement plane was flown in.

All things considered it sounds like United did a good job handling this. This isn’t a situation anyone would want to be in, and ultimately the most important thing is that no one was hurt.

Once they flew in a replacement aircraft the passengers all returned to Honolulu, and in the meantime the original aircraft with the mechanical issue is already back in passenger service.

Interestingly FlyerTalk member Pazu was booked on the flight, and after the lengthy ground delay in Honolulu decided to get off the plane, even though his luggage continued with the flight:

After 4 hours of being stuck inside United Airlines Flight 201 yesterday on the tarmac in Honolulu Airport, without being told the truth about what exactly was going on (excuses about smoke in the cockpit, waiting for paperwork, waiting for a final decision from head office, a Guest Relations Officer joking on the PA system that she didn’t know what was happening either, and a steward confiding that it was a leak in the hydraulic system) we decided to deplane, much to the irritation of the crew, who kept insisting that we would be delaying the flight further if they had to pull our luggage out. We decided to forgo the luggage pullout, and they hastily closed the plane door and retracted the jetway right after we got out, probably fearing others would follow and they would have to pay for everyone’s hotel and miscellaneous expenses.

What a crazy story! It’s always easy to just look at the facts and say “oh, no one was hurt, it must not have been a big deal,” but I can’t even imagine what was going on in the minds of the passengers and crew. First a lengthy ground delay on the ground, and then an odor in the cabin and supposed announcement from the captain saying there’s smoke in the cockpit. Regardless of whether or not the nearly four hour delay was at all related to the actual “issue,” I’m sure if you’re a passenger you’d automatically link the two.

Absolutely terrifying…

On the plus side, at least the passengers got a cool Foursquare check-in out of the flight — not many people can claim to have been on Midway Island!

  1. My grandfather was a veteran of the Battle of Midway. If I was on that flight I would have thought how different an experience he would have had in an airplane (he was in the Army Air Corps). I myself served in the Air Force thankful not under the same circumstances, but whenever I am in a jam it gives me comfort to think about those I know that suffered far worse.

  2. How did they get on and off the plane? If the island is mostly deserted, I assume there are no jet bridges or rollaway stairs? Google satellite view of the landing strip shows nothing but tarmac.

  3. @ Robert — Based on the video it looks like there are stairs. I’d guess they keep a spare around in the event of diversions.

  4. Just another reason to avoid UA at all costs. In over 20 years of business travel, I can count the number of times a UA or CO flight actually went off without a hitch on one hand – and have fingers left over.

    But I’d wager the people in Business had full-flat seats, so it’s all good!

  5. Either that Flyertalk member (Pazu) was lying or UA committed the biggest of airline security lapses, by letting luggage fly without the owners. That’s Security 101. My money is on the FTer lying. Most members there love to embellish stories to hear themselves talking.

  6. @ Geoff — It was United. The Delta footage in the video was of a previous diversion a couple of years back.

  7. @ A. S. — I believe that’s typically an airline policy and not an actual regulation. Could be wrong, though.

  8. Re: PPBM (Positive Passenger Baggage Matching). My recollection is that if a passenger voluntarily separates from his bags, the airline is only required to pull the bags if they haven’t been screened. Since everybody’s bags get scanned by TSA these days, PPBM is a non-issue.

    *Source: I was a ramp for United Express for a two year period surrounding 9/11. My information could be old or my memory foggy. But I’m not seeing an issue here unless procedures have changed. I further recall that at the time, certain passengers would have their bags flagged as PPBM, in which case they MUST travel together.

  9. Re the stairs to the 777 while on MDY, it was reported on FT that the stairway was three feet short of a/c door. So crew members and personnel from MDY served as human chains to bridge the three foot difference. Going forward, if MDY will always be considered a diversion for crossing the North Pacific, I’d say airlines should invest in and store stairways at these islands.

    Great job to the crew members.

  10. I’m shocked that they let a passenger voluntarily separate from their hold luggage. This would definitely not be allowed in the UK, that stopped after the Lockerbie disaster. Baggage can only fly without the passenger if they have no choice in the matter. Given they’re not happy that x-raying a mobile phone in hand luggage is now good enough and they want it switched on I don’t see how x-raying hold luggage is sufficient.

  11. So regarding the CNN story, what in the hell does the MH flight and Asiana flight have to do with anything, aviation reporting tends to be incredibly lazy.

  12. @A.S.

    I cancelled a Southwest ticket very late (but still 10 minutes before departure) once and my bags flew because they didn’t have time to pull them off. Got them back the next day.

  13. I would rather have been able look around midway rather than just sit in a hanger whilst waiting.

  14. @Robert @lucky @trust778

    MDY remains open as a diversion airport for ETOPS reasons, not a whole lot of options out there. The few dozen US Fish and Wildlife Service personnel who live there are used to greeting the occasional diversion, although military is probably more common than civilian.

    They have a set of air stairs, but they discovered a few years ago when the Delta 747 landed that they weren’t tall enough. So the on-island shop hastily built a few extra wooden steps to put on top and let the passengers deplane. I imagine they used the same one this time, if the doors on a 777 are as high up.

  15. That “flying-with-your-bags” policy was after Lockerbie in the 80’s. Given now we see terrorists obviously don’t care if they’re on board when the bomb goes off, I’d say that policy is moot if still being followed.

  16. Some terrorists might not care but I’m sure it must put off some others. Still seems like a sensible policy to me, unlike some of the other security procedures.

  17. I keep trying to find a reasonable way to get their without an emergency landing.

  18. Glad everyone’s fine although a $500 certificate is a very low amount to be compensated since they flew passengers back to HNL instead of GUM.

    Anyhow, the problem seemed to be with the equipment fan.

    If anyone’s interesting in reading more, search for “Issue In UA Cockpit 777 Diverts From HI To Midway” thread on Airliners.net

  19. Note that UA did not deliver the passengers to their destination (GUM), but instead returned them to HNL. I’m sure that was easier for UA, but just one more (very significant) inconvenience for the passengers.

  20. My wife, daughter, and I were on that flight. Don’t know if anyone will see this so long after the event, but I can clear up some issues. United severely downplayed what was going on with the plane in their statement to the media. They said it was merely a cooling fan issue. But when I woke up, it wasn’t just an odor, there was a smoky haze in the plane. At that point, it had not been announced that we had already turned around and were headed back to Honolulu. But ten minutes later, the captain announced that we needed to land on Midway, which would take 40 minutes from that point. It was obvious the situation was serious if he was willing to land on a runway not set up for big jets. He dumped the fuel prior to landing as well, to lighten the load so we could stop quick enough. But after landing, the pilot told us that during the flight, the electrical systems began to fail. He said the radar and the radio systems both went out. Something was burning in the electrical systems and knocking them out one by one. By God’s grace, we made it to Midway before full failure. I was preparing my heart to meet the Lord. As for touring Midway, we could not have seen anything since it was in the middle of the night. And when the replacement plane came, we had to hurry and get seated to be able to take off before dawn because the albatrosses of Midway get active at dawn and daytime takeoffs and landings are impossible. It was quite an experience that I won’t soon forget. If you look up any of the photos of us waiting in the gym, I am the guy standing with a red shirt, gray hair, and a camera bag on my shoulder with my back to the camera.

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