Monday, May 18, 2009


I have flown all over the world and to over 60 countries and have had many “trips from hell” with forgotten or lost luggage, rude attendants, drunken or disruptive passengers, delays, crying children and sick people. Never before my latest trip to he Galapagos Islands, however, had I witnessed a case of mass hysteria.

The trip started off on a bad foot as Ecuadorian airline Aerogal announced that our 8:20 am departure was delayed. They didn’t offer and explanation or an estimated time of departure, but hours later we learned that there was a mechanical problem with the aircraft and they were dealing with it. Not being an advocate for flying on faulty aircraft, I found a quiet corner to do some emails, and when the flight left, 4 hours later I was happy to finally be Galapagos-bound.

After a routine refueling stop in Guayaquil we took off again, only to get an announcement from the captain, not 20 minutes into the flight, telling us we were returning to Guayaquil because of the “technical difficulty”. By now the passengers were tired, hungry and angry. Many of them had already missed the departure of their cruise ships in the Galapagos and the atmosphere on the tarmac as we waited on a verdict on whether or not we would be allowed off the plane was tense. A few people tried cracking jokes, but a passenger got off and stormed into the cockpit to demand an explanation. I couldn’t believe my eyes…if this had happened in the United States he would be facing life-in-prison! He eventually came back to his seat and the captain announced our departure again! As we pulled back from the gate, though, screams were heard on the right side of the airplane: “stop the plane, there is fuel pouring unto the tarmac”. What happened next was out of a horror film. People started panicking and screaming to be let out of the plane, babies started crying and women started shrieking. It was hard to believe the scene. The poor flight attendants, with their limited English, tried to calm the passengers and to explain that what had poured out of the airplane were the remnants of the jet fuel the pilot had to dump in order to land with a full tank. It was to no avail. Passengers got off their seats and demanded to return to the gate. To my amazement, the crew yielded and we pulled back into the gate, where 70% of the passengers disembarked, forfeiting their cruise plans (as ships are unlikely to come back to port to pick up any stragglers) and losing their luggage, as the plane took off with all cargo to deliver the rest of us, safely, to the beautiful Galapagos Archipelago.

I have never seen such a case of mass hysteria. Even though I understand the concerns over mechanic troubles and leaking fuel, I doubt that the captain would put us and the aircraft (let alone himself) in danger if he thought it was unsafe to fly.

Ahhh, the joys of travel! Here is something I learned today: when traveling one must try at all costs to remain calm and sensible. Even when you are tired, hungry, angry and stressed out you often find yourself making regrettable decisions. Of course flying is dangerous and one should always be suspicious of too many “mechanical” problems. That said, your best chance of making reasonable choices is to keep a clear head and follow your own gut.

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