Once, twice, Delta flight to London heads back to Atlanta

The first time Alex Brown’s Atlanta-to London flight turned back to Atlanta Tuesday night, he didn’t think much of it.

“Baywatch” was on his screen, and Brown didn’t hear the noise that caused his Delta pilot to reevaluate crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The second time, though, was a different story.

Brown picked up “Baywatch” where he left off, but the boom that caused the second flight to turn around was loud enough to be heard over the movie.

“It was as if someone dropped a lead ball in the middle of the plane,” he said. “It was a loud bang and it was as if you could feel it on your feet.”

Emergencies happen. Flights get re-routed. But what are the chances of two London-bound Delta planes just hours apart needing to return to Atlanta just as they cross into North Carolina?

The first flight lasted an hour and 21 minutes, while the second was just two minutes shorter, according to data from FlightAware. Michael Thomas, a Delta spokesman, said the first flight crew decided to return to Atlanta “out of an abundance of caution” after hearing a noise in the aircraft they weren’t familiar with. On the second flight, there was a new plane and a new flight crew, but a similar noise was heard. The 210 passengers were given hotel vouchers and rescheduled on other flights leaving Wednesday.

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the diverted flights, and a preliminary report on the first flight said the crew “reported noises and vibration in the wing and cabin areas of the aircraft.”

But Thomas said Delta believes it found the issue in the planes’ cargo compartment.

“A piece of cargo was making noise,” he said. “It’s been subsequently repacked and is set for shipment.”

Thomas wouldn’t provide any details on the cargo, but Donna Mullins, president of Mullins International Solutions, said passenger planes are used to ship anything that isn’t considered hazardous material. The errant cargo could have been anything from bars of gold to engines to live animals.

“You would be surprised what sits under your feet when you’re on a plane,” she said.

Still, it’s rare to hear about cargo causing flights to turn around — let alone, twice. Deborah Torma, president of Atlanta Customs Brokers, said this sounded like a “freak” incident in which freight wasn’t properly secured. Machinery that wasn’t properly packaged or that wasn’t secured could have easily been the cause of the noises in each flight, Mullins said. Even so, Mullins said she thought the pilots made the right decision by turning around when they heard something they couldn’t identify.

“In these days and times, it’s better to be safe than sorry,” she said. “If they had been over the middle of the ocean and there had been something that put a hole in the bottom of the plane, people would have been a lot more upset.”

RELATED: Surprise passenger prompts Delta flight to return to Detroit

As it was, though, passengers were frustrated. Brown expressed outrage over the way Delta staff handled the situation. He said once he got off the second flight, Delta employees at the counter were dismissive and “rude” and no one helped him find the shuttle for a hotel overnight. Brown said when his wife contacted Delta via Twitter, she received little information about her husband’s flight status. Paul Phillips, another passenger on Delta’s flight 284, said in an email that he could only describe Delta’s handling of the incident “as poor at best, no communication and rude uncaring staff.”

Caitlin Fitzgibbon, a passenger who didn’t hear the noises from her seat at the back of the plane, said she was largely happy with the communication. There was never any official announcement about what had happened, but Fitzgibbon said she assumed that was because the crew was shocked that they were turning around again.

“They weren’t quite sure what to say,” she said. “Having it happen twice in the same manner was a bit unnerving. It doesn’t make me feel totally confident to get on another flight.”

Thomas said diversions like this were “not common” and that Delta had apologized to passengers. The company was handing out care packages to passengers on Wednesday’s flights, and had proactively reached out to customers whose contact information they had to apologize and offer cash vouchers, he said. The airline plans to offer either miles or travel vouchers to customers to apologize for the delay, he said.

Thomas said, though, that in making the decision to return to Atlanta, crew members were doing just what they had been trained to do. He said it made more sense to return to Atlanta than to land elsewhere because Hartsfield-Jackson is the airport best equipped to handle large 767 planes and has the maintenance crew to make repairs if something had been wrong with the plane.

Speaking from the terminal before her third attempt to return home, Fitzgibbon said she saw a lot of familiar faces. 172 were rescheduled for the same flight. 

“Overall, it’s been a bit unnerving, and a bit bizarre that something like this happened twice in a row,” she said. “Most people are hoping the third time’s the charm.”


The AJC's Arielle Kass keeps you updated on the latest happenings in Fulton County government and politics. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these stories:


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