Herewith the saga of Republic Airlines Flight 339, flying on June 1, 1986, between Detroit and Los Angeles. Some might politely call what happened to this flight an unfortunate comedy of errors. Others might label it an airborne example of Murphy's Law. Both descriptions would probably be correct.
To be sure, it is an example of what can happen when one thing goes wrong on one flight and how that one thing is compounded by misinformation, misleading statements and confusion. Ultimately, it affected the schedules and travel plans of hundreds of worried, tired and, in many cases, angry passengers.
First, let me say that I am a longstanding fan of Republic Airlines, a carrier that flies to 113 cities a day and does a generally excellent job of moving people and baggage over large chunks of North American geography.
Call It an Exception
I hope that Flight 339 will be recorded as an exception to the airline's good record. However, most folks on the ground in Detroit that night couldn't have cared about the company's laudable reliability statistics. Flight 339 was three hours late. Why?
I arrived in Detroit from New York's La Guardia Airport in plenty of time to catch my connection, Flight 339, scheduled to leave at 7:30 from gate D-15. But a sign on the display board informed me that the plane would be leaving 50 minutes late, at 8:20, due to weather delays out of Canada.
Anyone who travels regularly is accustomed to delays of up to an hour caused by any number of factors outside of the airline's control, so I was not surprised.
I went to the gate, where a line had already formed. The time was 7 p.m. The gate agent checked his computer and said: "The plane is on approach, and we should be out of here at 8:20."
What he told us was wrong. In fact, the plane was still on the ground in Toronto, but nobody had updated the agent's information. In fact, Flight 339 was by then not due to land until 8:20. Twenty minutes later, this information was updated and a new departure time of 9 p.m. was announced.
On the Move
A new gate was also announced, E-16, on a different concourse, and the long march began.
Once there, the passengers formed another line at the counter, to no avail.
Some background information: Flight 339, a Boeing 757, was scheduled to leave Toronto at 5:45 p.m. on Sunday, arriving at 6:41 in Detroit for a 49-minute stop en route to Los Angeles.
Flight 339, like 229 others that day, stopped in Detroit for a good reason. Detroit is one of Republic's three major hub cities (the other two are Minneapolis and Memphis). Some 5,400 passengers a day connect with Republic in Detroit headed for 80 cities. When hub schedules work, they work very well. When they don't, it's the domino theory in motion.
Back to the saga. Inside the crowded E concourse, agitated people were everywhere, pacing nervously, talking on pay phones to relatives.
I overheard a supervisor tell a gate agent: "We can't get the 757 into the gate because we've got a 727 still there, and we can't push the 727 out because we're missing a flight attendant."
A public announcement was made, saying: "For those waiting for Flight 339 to Los Angeles, the aircraft is now on the ground in Detroit (applause). But the aircraft is a 757, and only a few gates here can accommodate it. As soon as another aircraft leaves gate E-16, we can board the aircraft."
Indeed, Republic's Flight 708 to Rochester, N.Y., with the missing flight attendant, was loaded with passengers and going nowhere. Half a mile away, Flight 339 had landed, 96 minutes late. On the airport's arrival information screens the flight was still showing as being "on approach."
The 727 and its passengers and the 757 and its passengers became unwitting victims of a missing crew member.
There seemed to be a simple solution to this latest problem. I approached one of the gate supervisors.
"Am I to understand that the only reason for the delay is that one of your flights is missing a stewardess?" I asked.
"Uh . . . that's right, sir," she hesitated. "And it can't leave without its full crew complement."
"Then I've got a solution," I suggested. "Why not push the plane back, let the 757 come in, and when the stewardess shows up, hustle her up the back stairs of the 727?"
"I'm sorry, sir," she replied, "but FAA regulations won't permit us to do that."
I had never heard of such a regulation.
I then approached another supervisor and asked her the same question. "I just don't have the authority to do that, sir," she said. "That authority comes from our operations department."
"Why don't you call them and ask?"
"But they're in Minneapolis," she said.
She didn't call.
(I later checked with the FAA. No such regulations have ever existed concerning the boarding of crew members in situations like this one.)
So no one did anything.