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45-Hour Delay: Nonstop Plight

Passengers on an Air India flight endure hours on the tarmac, a mini- revolt and more. Oh, the memories!

December 22, 2005|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

It started Monday when their first plane blew a tire on takeoff, dumped fuel over the ocean and circled back to Los Angeles International Airport to land in a spray of sparks, shedding 200 pounds of rubber and metal on the runway.

On Tuesday, hundreds of Air India passengers tried again, settling into a different jumbo jet with "Your Palace in the Sky" scrolled in red script near the tail. This time, one of the engines wouldn't start. For about five hours, travelers sat in the sweltering plane. Flight attendants locked up the drinks. Some passengers staged a mini revolt.

Finally, passengers were taken off the plane and bused to a hotel, arriving at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday. They overwhelmed the front desk, and some did not get to bed until 4 a.m.

The weary travelers returned to LAX later Wednesday morning for their third attempt, a flight set to depart at 1 p.m. It was pushed back. It was moved up. And finally, around 4:30 p.m., they took off, bound for Frankfurt, Germany, and New Delhi.

All in all, after two nights with little sleep, endless waits in line and three scheduled flights, their ordeal stretched to a 45-hour delay.

"It's been a nightmare," said Jaswinder Toor, a self-employed contractor from Modesto, as he waited in the Tom Bradley International Terminal on Wednesday.

Through it all, an engineer, a psychologist, a man recovering from open-heart surgery, several college professors, an aspiring model and "a Western Master of Eastern Wisdom" got to know each other on a first-name basis.

Some didn't make it to important lectures. Others lost precious vacation days. And a few worried they would miss once-in-a-lifetime family events.

"I want to be at that wedding, otherwise I'll get very mad," said Gursharan Toor, 16, as he stood in line with his family Wednesday morning, a Red Bull in one hand and a fruit juice in the other. "I only have one sister."

The high school junior's journey started early Monday when he, his brother Jaswinder, his brother's wife and their 6-month-old son drove from their home in Modesto to San Francisco to get a visa for the baby.

After a seven-hour drive to LAX, they boarded Air India Flight 136 to New Delhi. As the plane took off, Gursharan said, it shook after a tire burst, startling passengers.

The Boeing 747-400 flew over the ocean and circled, dumped fuel and then returned for a bumpy emergency landing.

The landing gear dug into the runway, leaving a 7,000-foot-long field of debris that took 40 employees hours to clean up.

That night in a hotel, the teenager and his family turned on the news to see footage of their plane landing amid a shower of sparks.

"We're lucky everyone is safe, thank God," Gursharan said.

Airport officials said the pilots made a wise choice to take off, explaining that, if they had aborted, they might not have had enough runway to stop the heavy, fully fueled aircraft.

Jaswinder Toor tried to get the family on a different airline but was told that the next available seats were not until Jan. 15. His sister's wedding is Jan. 8.

On Tuesday, the Toors returned to LAX, loaded with 10 pieces of luggage and wedding presents, to try again.

Flight 136 pushed back from the gate at 8:35 p.m. -- 2 1/2 hours late.

As the jet approached the runway, the crew realized that one of the four engines was malfunctioning.

They called a tug to tow the plane to a remote gate near the western end of the runways. It took 45 minutes.

After making an initial announcement that there was a "technical problem," the flight crew didn't provide more detailed information, passengers said, leaving them trapped on the packed jumbo jet for about five hours.

"We were told it would take 10 minutes, but it took another hour and another hour," said Gerhard Wenz, a chemistry professor on his way to Germany.

Representatives of the government-owned Air India said the crew didn't immediately take passengers back to the terminal because mechanics initially thought they could fix the problem quickly.

"This process takes time; that is why obviously the passengers would have discomfort," said Lalit Kapur, the airline's West Coast manager. "They would find that we cannot give the correct information because we also don't know it. It was step to step as it happened."

As mechanics worked to diagnose the problem, the temperature started rising on the double-deck plane. Flight attendants locked up the drinks in the galley to keep passengers from helping themselves.

Soon tempers flared. Some travelers who had been on Monday's flight stood by the cabin doors, crying.

Soni Verma, a psychology professor at Sierra College in Rocklin, near Sacramento, said some of the stranded passengers were very patient.

But she added, "We were not."

As their son Rahul, 10, snapped pictures on his camera and listened to music in Hindi on his iPod, Verma's husband, Ravi, organized passengers to lobby the flight crew to allow them off the airplane.

"I'm an engineer and things break," Verma, the chief executive of a network security company, said as he stood in line Wednesday morning. "But people [were] suffering -- they think people are immature and you shouldn't tell them too much."

Finally, Wenz, the professor, said he just walked through a door that attendants had opened.

He climbed down the stairs and off the plane to wait on the tarmac. Other passengers, he said, followed.

He watched mechanics checking the engine with a flashlight.

As he recounted his story at Gate 110 of the Bradley terminal, Wenz and his fellow travelers agreed that the experience, however unpleasant, was memorable.

"We made up a joke," said Jeffrey Armstrong, whose business card proclaims him a "Western Master of Eastern Wisdom" and who said he often travels to India to lecture.

"Air India is going to give out infrequent flier miles."

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