Electronic Design

So That's What An In-Flight Bomb Scare Feels Like

We supposedly live in the information and technology age, right? After all, someone can steal your identity while you surf the Web at 30,000 feet (on JetBlue anyway). And apparently, portable 3D ultrasound machines are cheap enough for celebrities to snap them up like hotcakes (see "Architecting New Dimensions Of Medical Imaging").

So why should my United flight 292T from San Francisco supposedly direct to Orlando need to be diverted to Denver because of a suspicious package?

Boeing recently unveiled its 787 Dreamliner, equipped with LED lighting, wireless entertainment with Internet access, and 19- by 10-in. electrochromatic windows that can be darkened at the touch of a button, all for a mere $162 million list price. According to Mike Bair, vice president and general manager of the 787 program, the plane has about 60 miles of wiring.

So with that price tag and all that wiring and technology, for a few more bucks, why not add a portable imaging device to the airplane to avoid bomb scares and diversions? And if a package is indeed confirmed suspicious, perhaps we could take more immediate action than was taken on my flight.

At about 3 p.m. on June 24, United 292 Tango took off from San Francisco for Orlando. After it was safe to do so, I got my laptop out and started working on an article. Drinks had been served to about two-thirds of coach when an announcement asked all flight attendants to clear the aisles of all serving carts.

I've only heard that particular announcement one other time when the turbulence was getting particularly ugly. There didn't seem to be much turbulence, but I figured the captain knew best. Next, there was another odd announcement with a somewhat shaky voice: "All passengers please return your head sets immediately."

The husband half of the older couple seated next to me started to speculate about one of the flight attendants breaking her arm, because apparently, much to my ignorant bliss, a flight attendant had passed by with a white cloth covering her hand and arm. Thus, the headset wires were needed to form a temporary sling.

The next announcement a few moments later was equally nervous: "Will all passengers please return any blankets in your seating area?" Blankets? More husband speculation suggested that perhaps the woman had gone into shock or maybe a pregnant lady on board had just gone into labor. About this time, not one but two air marshals made their presence known and hopped into action. Perhaps they had some medical training and could assist with the broken limb and pregnancy. It is rather amusing to watch a plane full of people crane their heads around and peek through the seat cushions to get a view of what is going on in the back of the plane.

The plane started to turn and descend, and the captain decided it was time to make a punctual announcement: "Well folks, we are headed to Denver. In the post-9/11 era, we have to take more precautions than we are used to. Hang tight and we'll be in Denver in about 25 minutes." I knew I wasn’t only one wondering why we were going to Denver, as the captain failed to mention it. Perhaps it slipped her mind.

As the speculation about shock and pregnancy and the need to divert to seek immediate medical attention continued, the strangest announcement yet blared over the intercom: "Okay folks, I am going to need everyone in the last four rows to either find an empty seat or quadruple up (four passengers to three seats)." We were one of the few lucky rows to welcome a fourth person, and according to our friend the husband, whoever was in the back needing medical attention required a lot of space.

We got to Denver without seeming to slow down quite much as normal, but this is where things got really odd. We seemed to land on the most remote runway Denver has to offer, and the terminals were nowhere to be seen. I thought that perhaps we weren’t headed to the terminal.

But after no less than 15 minutes of taxiing, we reached what appeared to be a main terminal, but stopped short of a terminal space. About this time, the captain chimed in again: "Well folks, we are going to wait here until the terminal ahead of us opens up, at which time the aircraft will be boarded by ground security and they will inform us of our next move."

This is where all my schooling for my graduate degree kicked in. Like Sherlock Holmes, I deduced that we had a potential bomb on board, and the pregnant woman and flight attendant with the broken limb would be preempted for it. So then I thought that if we potentially had a bomb on board, why were we anywhere near a busy terminal full of passengers waiting for flights, and why were we waiting?! After all, don't bombs have a tendency to explode unannounced at any moment? Perhaps nobody heard any ticking.

So our gate opened up and we pulled up, and indeed, some security personnel boarded the plane and headed for the back. In the meantime, about four buses and several police and other white-collar folks appeared on the tarmacadam below our aircraft. After several more moments, we were told we would be using the clunky stairs reserved for captain and crew, not the terminal itself, and boarding buses. We grabbed our belongings, herded our way off the aircraft, and boarded the buses with no less than 20 pairs of eyes watching our every move.

The buses transported us to another terminal, where we were told we would be rechecking our carry-ons through security. We entered the terminal with about five sets of eyes watching us, then four, then two, then none. We were as free as barn swallows and able to get rid of any suspicious items we may have been carrying. After at least half the plane passed through security, security asked all those aboard UA 292T to stand aside the screening center until further notice. After 10 minutes, we those of us who remained had our carry-ons re-screened, and we headed back to our original terminal and gate.

After another 90 minutes, we re-boarded the plane. The captain informed us that the suspicious package was indeed a false alarm. Several FBI, police, and bomb-sniffing dogs had scoured every inch of the aircraft and gave it an approving nod or bark. After three and a half hours total, we were back to being on our way to Orlando and made it without further ado.

While I felt that United handled the in-air situation rather well, everything seemed to fall apart on the ground. But I lived to tell about it, so I guess I should count my blessings.

So what is the moral of the story? The chances of one live bomb on a plane is one in several million. The chances of two live bombs on the same plane is one in several billion. So, always bring a live bomb on board with you to improve your chances.

My dealings with United before and after this incident were the worst I have ever experienced, from being offered but not being able to purchase an upgraded seat to 36-hour delays to dealing with tech support in India. But we'll save those stories for another day. In the meantime, if you have an interesting story to tell, ring your call button and I will send you information on some airline consumer advocacy events, including an attempt to create the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights.

In the meantime, I propose the following technology changes that should be adopted by all airlines: 1) Several e-ticket companies and airlines offer automatic flight status notification. But this is really only half the problem. How about an e-mail, text message, and/or phone call letting passengers know when the check-in line is longer than normal, or that security check point for the terminal you are scheduled to leave from is experiencing delays. 2) The airports should create a database that tracks and updates on a daily basis the average time it takes to get through a given airport, and include last year’s information. For example, it may only take ten minutes to get through the entire San Jose International Airport, including the bag check, security, and walk to the terminal, but if you are taking Southwest Airlines out of LAX, it could easily take over an hour to complete the same process. 3) Similar to weather predictions, let's see a prediction for a flight leaving and landing on time for each hop of connection flights. Taking in to account, for example, weather, airport traffic, location of the crew, and the current location of the target airplane. If I have a better chance of making my final destination via Dallas rather than Chicago, I might want to try and make that change. 4) Like technical support in the electronics industry, the airlines should provide a ticket number for each baggage or passenger-support issue so we don’t have to repeat ourselves each time we call in to try and make a change. 5) How about each airline implements a uniform look, feel, and process for common Web site tasks, such as checking flight status, check-in, seat selection, seat upgrades, printing boarding passes, and so on. 6) To enhance passenger security, please upgrade the old and severely outdated analog CCTV cameras with some nice new digital IP cameras with automated face recognition and displays each person’s mug on a giant LCD screen above the security line. Compared to other security upgrades this would be a nominal fee and overall a good bang-for-the-buck (see "Architecting Prevent Terrorist Attacks By Upgrading 60-Year-Old Technology").

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