On May 13th of this year, I embarked upon what turned out to be the craziest travel day of my life.
No stranger to international travel -- I’ve spent only a handful of my 36 summers in the U.S. -- I was awakened at 3 a.m. on that fateful morning to a text message from United saying that my 6 a.m. flight out of Asheville, North Carolina, had been canceled. I had initially been scheduled to fly through Chicago, with London as my final destination, but strong spring storms grounded all air traffic going through Chicago O’Hare Airport.
While this would have been a mere inconvenience had I been traveling alone, I shot out of bed in a panic since the reality of my situation was that I was co-leading a two-week-long study-abroad trip for 14 students.
Getting dressed at lightning speed, I checked out of my hotel and prepared myself to both calm 14 sets of parents and to figure out how I was getting 16 people on a different flight. After a couple of hours working with an incredibly helpful ticketing agent, I got us on a different set of flights departing from Charlotte and taking us through Philadelphia. There was just one problem: We were two hours away from Charlotte.
As we headed over to the car rental booths, we found one that had a 12-person van that we could rent. Thankfully, a couple of the students’ parents were driving back to the Charlotte area, so everyone had a ride. I distinctly remember sitting in the passenger seat of the van, looking at the second faculty member on the trip, and thinking, Crisis averted.
HA. HAHAHAHA. Nope.
Hours later, we successfully made it to Charlotte and then Philadelphia. Pumped to finally be on our way to London (more than 15 hours after I had stood at the Asheville airport ticket counter scrambling to make this work), I settled into my seat on Flight 728 and planned out my activities for the seven-hour flight. I figured I’d watch a movie until dinner was served, and then I’d pop some melatonin and snooze until we arrived. After all, it wasn’t a very long flight.
As I mentioned, I travel internationally a lot, and at one point, I remember wondering what was taking so long for the initial drink service to take place. I shrugged it off and grabbed my own snacks and bottle of water that I always travel with. About 60 minutes into the flight, my viewing of "Thor: The Dark World" (don’t judge -- I have a Chris Hemsworth thing), was interrupted by a commotion coming from the back of the plane. I couldn’t make out what was being said, but my brain went through the usual suspects of international mis-travel: (1) someone was puking; (2) someone had a medical emergency; (3) someone had one too many small bottles of vodka.
Little did I know that I was pretty spot on with #3, with one huge caveat: the drunk offender was also inappropriately touching women in his row.
This is the part of the story where I have to fill in the blanks of what happened based on what I was told by the other faculty member, as well as by the news reports. A flight attendant instructed the individual to simmer down and he did not. Instead, he threatened her. Yeah, that’s no bueno. Unbeknownst to Mr. Drunk Groper, there were United States Air Marshals on our flight. (Hey, they do exist!) The plain-clothes Air Marshals instructed the offender to move to the back of the plane and -- you guessed it -- he cussed them out and threatened to assault them.
At this point, I can go back to my point of view because as I was munching trail mix, the pilot interrupted Chris Hemsworth’s ab show to tell us that he was turning the plane around to get rid of some “unwanted baggage.”
Shut the front door.
A cashew fell out of my slack jaw as I looked at the student next to me. My eyes then flew to my watch. We were almost two hours into this flight. And we were headed back. For the next two hours, my mind just kept looping with one thought: I cannot believe this is happening.
Once we got close to Philly again, the logistics of trying to land a plane that was not supposed to land for another 4.5 hours became real. We had too much fuel to safely land. The pilot had to circle the Philadelphia airspace for a while to burn off enough fuel for him to get the plane back on the ground. As he was doing so, the pilot was giving us instructions.
“Once we land, we must go through another set of safety inspections that will take roughly an hour. Please be patient.”
“Everyone, please stay in your seats no matter what.”
“The baggage that we are removing from the flight may be belligerent. Do not interact with him.”
When we landed, nothing happened for about 15 minutes. I’m assuming that the Air Marshals were waiting for law enforcement on the ground to arrive to take possession over our “unwanted baggage.” I was morbidly fascinated by the entire process (this is the part where I tell you that I’m a criminology professor). I was familiar with Air Marshals, but due to the nature of what they do, you’d never know that they were on your flight until something like this happened. To see it play out in person was surreal to say the least. And so I sat on the edge of my aisle seat, waiting for the person who GOT A FUCKING INTERNATIONAL FLIGHT TURNED AROUND to be escorted off of the plane. The murmuring of passengers preceded the offender’s passage and a smallish man who appeared to be in his 40s was marched by in handcuffs mumbling about how he had to piss and that this was a violation of his civil rights.
Feeling immensely better once he was gone -- but probably not as relieved as the women he groped -- I finished my trail mix and prepared to depart for London for the second time.
I’m pleased to report that we arrived without further incident (albeit our seven-hour flight turned into a 15-hour flight) and the rest of the trip was blissfully uneventful. Thankfully, all ended well, and my brother gave me a good laugh when he said, “I am impressed by the lengths that you'll take in order to show criminology in action. The students may have thought that it was a scripted part of the experience!”
Yep, it was all part of the plan.