A flightful of United passengers likely experienced the rare sensation that is gratitude to be at Newark Airport this weekend, after weathering a miserable 14 hours grounded on a frozen Canadian tarmac.
Hong Kong-bound United Flight 179 reportedly left Newark just after 3 p.m. on Saturday, but had to reroute for Goose Bay airport in Canada when a passenger had a seizure over Greenland. After the plane made an emergency landing around 9:30 p.m., the customer received medical attention—thanks to a 20-year-old EMT and college student onboard the aircraft, according to the NY Post, and medical personnel who met the flight on the ground. The passenger was evacuated and taken to a nearby hospital for treatment, CNN reported, but that was just the first chapter in a calamitous night to come.
Temperatures reached a completely unreasonable -25 degrees (-65 with windchill, or what hell would feel like if it froze over) by the time the crew had taken care of the ailing passenger. Apparently, that was too much cold for the plane to handle. Flight attendants found themselves unable to shut the emergency door, effectively trapping passengers in an icy metal cage: Because Goose Bay is a Royal Canadian Air Force Base, and because no customs officers were on duty during night hours, none of these roughly 240 prisoners were permitted to seek warmth inside the airport, or shelter from the 31 mph winds outside.
"It has been cold and a bit hungry, but otherwise it was all right," Chris Liew, a remarkably even-keeled passenger, told CBS 2 New York. "I think everybody understood that [these were] circumstances that nobody could really control."
Not everyone, however, felt Liew's chill.
Please help us. This is an emergency @united. People are not doing well. Running low on food.
— SONJAY (@sonjaydutterson) January 20, 2019
As this mess unfolded, United issued a statement acknowledging the diversion and the subsequent mechanical SNAFU. "We apologize to our customers and our crew is doing everything possible to assist them during the delay," the statement read, and indeed, passenger Eitan Magid confirmed to Gothamist that "the crew was amazing," and that overall, "people were pretty calm"—even if extra blankets were not forthcoming.
However, Magid added, "This whole thing could have been avoided if they had searched for a nearby airport or returned home immediately when the passenger was in distress, instead of waiting what amounted to a few hours before searching to land." According to Magid, the passenger in need of medical assistance actually had multiple seizures during the flight: After the first, Magid recounted, the man told the crew he wanted to continue, but after three or four hours in the air, he began seizing again. It reportedly took around two hours to land after that. (United had not confirmed Magid's account by time of publication.)
On Sunday morning, Goose Bay officials brought the hungry passengers Tim Hortons donuts and coffee, Canada's breakfast of champions. A rescue plane arrived to take them back to Newark—some 14 hours after they originally embarked on their ill-fated journey.
— Craig Schachter (@craigschachter) January 20, 2019
Four @united tech ops workers trying to fix the right wing emergency exit door of #UA179. A planeful of people is hoping they have better luck than the last set of mechanics and pilots who tried hours ago @United_179 pic.twitter.com/PlC41Rh7qp
— Steven Lau (@unoslau) January 20, 2019
— Eitan Magid (@EitanMagid) January 20, 2019
When they finally deplaned around 6 p.m., passengers were reportedly offered meals, hotel rooms, reimbursement, and compensation. According to CBS 2, the airline gave out "$500 credit[s], a $100 gift card, and vouchers for food and a hotel stay," rebooking passengers who had to keep traveling after the ordeal. Those who jumped ship in Newark, however, may have gotten a taste of yesterday's relative warmth—that fleeting patch of 40-degree weather, remember?—before being plunged into tundra-adjacent temps once again.