Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Monday, April 16, 2007

I Thought I was Going To Die Tonight On American Airlines 4684

Tonight my American Airlines flight 4684, an Embraer RJ, from Raleigh to Columbus, scheduled for a 7:00 PM departure, took off 80 minutes late in bad weather. We had waited at the end of the runway in pouring rain for a thunderstorm to move off the field.

About 5 minutes into our bumpy climb-out, a subtle light gray smoke that looked like condensate suddenly appeared lightly streaming from the overhead air vents. The smoke partially but rapidly filled the cabin, especially among the back rows (where I was seated), accompanied by an oily, acrid smell. It happened so quickly that my fellow passengers, like me, didn’t at first believe what we were seeing and smelling. (I know this because we discussed it later back on the ground.)

When it first occurred, the flight attendant came on the PA system, telling us that we should not worry about what appeared to be smoke coming from the air vents. It was just condensation caused by the high humidity left by the thunderstorm, he said.

But shortly afterwards, the flight attendant made a second announcement, saying, "We are aware of the situation." This time his voice was tense and nervous. He asked us to ring our call buttons if we thought there was a problem. I was sitting in seat 15A on a 16-row airplane, and the smoke seemed to be coming from somewhere near the rear. I immediately rang my call button, as did everyone around me theirs.

The FA was on his phone with the pilots and then came to the rear, fire extinguisher in hand, feeling the floor and ceiling for hot spots. He checked the lavatory right behind row 16 last, but told me he did not find anything. However, smoke continued coming from the air vents, and it appeared to be worsening.

This was the moment when I thought it was over, that we were going to die. I’ve been flying for over 30 years, and I have had several airline clients. I subscribed to AVIATION WEEK, the bible of the industry, for 25 years, and I have read the after-accident FAA and NTSB reports of every major air crash in the past quarter century. I know too much about these incidents. When the cabin of an airplane fills with smoke, odds are that you’re going to die, and quickly, from asphyxiation.

I put down my Time Magazine and started saying my prayers. Ironically, I was reading about Einstein’s faith in God, an excerpt from the new Einstein biography by Walter Isaacson. I prayed for my children’s well-being in their lives.

Nobody panicked; all remained calm. It was a tribute to the human spirit, an experience I never wanted or expected to witness. I thought our lives were over, and many of my companions may have felt the same. However, there was almost no talking between and among passengers during this somber period.

After returning to the front of the cabin, the flight attendant conferred over his phone with the cockpit, and then repeatedly announced that we were turning back to Raleigh. We landed OK after a harrowing 20 minutes or so. The pilots declared an emergency and returned very, very quickly to Raleigh/Durham.

As we descended, the smoke dissipated as mysteriously and as quickly as it had come, to everyone's great relief.

As we touched down, the plane was met and surrounded by fire and emergency vehicles. But because the smoke was now gone, we continued to a gate and deplaned normally.

On my way out I stopped by the cockpit to tell the pilots what happened from my perspective near the rear of the plane, and I thanked them for their quick action and safe landing. They told me that the smoke alarm had been triggered in the lav.

The pilots were shaken (as were we) about the incident, and they refused to fly that airplane tonight. American cancelled the flight. I am booked on another AA flight tomorrow at 2:05 PM that arrives CMH about 4:00 PM Monday.

Tonight, after several stiff drinks, I'm wondering why I keep doing what I do.


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