Broken toilets strand 262 plane passengers for two days

Mike Dunham
A United Airlines jet was diverted to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on a flight to Shanghai because the lavatories were not working correctly. Another jet was flown to Anchorage so passengers could continue their journey, but it didn't take off because of mechanical problems.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Passengers from United Airlines flight 857 wait to continue their trip to Shanghai at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Tuesday. The flight left San Francisco at 2 p.m. Sunday but landed in Anchorage due to toilet problems. The passengers left Anchorage about 48 hours after starting their trip.
MIKE DUNHAM / Anchorage Daily News

Two hundred and sixty-two United Airlines passengers left San Francisco on Sunday expecting a 13-hour flight to Shanghai, China. Instead they found themselves stranded in Anchorage for two frustrating days.

"There's no communication," said passenger Peter Tabb on Tuesday afternoon as he stood at Gate C-9 of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport awaiting word. "We think they're being dishonest."

Chen Chang, a businessman from Fremont, Calif., looked up at a 1930s era Fairchild single engine bush plane on display at the end of the concourse. "I'd rather be on that plane right now," he quipped.

Flight 857 took off from San Francisco at 2 p.m. on Sunday. About three hours after takeoff, several of the lavatories were found to not be working, said United spokesman Charles Hobart. "The flight crew elected to divert to the nearest available airport," he said.

That was Anchorage.

Once the Boeing 777 landed, passengers said, they sat on the ground until 8 p.m. before being allowed to deplane. Once in the terminal, things turned chaotic.

"There was a lot of confusion," said Tabb.

"We were told to go to the other end of the terminal, then back to the north end," said Tammy Harmon of Cupertino, Calif., traveling with her 4 year-old daughter.

The airline gave passengers hotel and meal vouchers. But with only a handful of employees to hand out 262 sets of vouchers, the wait was two or three hours. "I didn't wait," said Tabb. "I got my own room."

"It was 10 or 11 p.m. before we had the meal vouchers," said Chang. "Everything was closed." Others complained their vouchers weren't honored.

"And the hotels all wanted credit cards in order to check in," said passenger Camille Chen. "There are a lot of people traveling back to China. They don't have credit cards. Some of the passengers stepped in and let them use theirs."

"The employees were being helpful, but they were overwhelmed," said Bill Smith of Antioch, Calif. "The U.S. Air employees came over and helped out, and I don't think they were supposed to."

On Monday, United flew in a second 777 to continue the trip. The passengers were brought back to the airport and boarded around 3 p.m. There was another long wait on the tarmac. Then the awful hiss of systems shutting down.

Many of the passengers were bound for a semiconductor convention in Shanghai. They know computers and could tell from the sound what was happening.

"It went all the way off," said Chang. He was told there was a problem with the computer overheating. "They had to try a cold reboot."

But it didn't work. Now the passengers were stuck on a plane without power or lights or -- again -- working toilets.

"The woman behind me was having an anxiety attack," said Tabb.

After some hours, they were let off that plane and waited until 8:30 p.m. before being told that the flight was a no-go. Then they got back in line to get more vouchers.

"They wouldn't let us have our luggage," said passenger Alisa Hart.

"Some of us made a run to Walmart last night to get socks and underwear," said Treg Vandenberg.

United sent a third 777, which arrived at noon on Tuesday. By 1 p.m. the passengers had queued up and were boarding. There were hopeful smiles at the thought that the journey would, at long last, resume. But you couldn't call them happy travelers.

"I've missed two connecting flights," said Tabb, somewhat testily.

"We had hotel reservations and ground transportation," said Hart. "Now what?"

"If we'd known we'd be here this long, we might have done some sight-seeing," said Harmon with a wistful glance at the clear blue skies and snow-clad Chugach Mountains.

"We'll be fully refunding everyone's tickets," said Hobart. United was talking with the passengers about additional compensation, he added.

"We should be home," said passenger Radu Barsan. "But, hey, at least we all made new friends."

According to airport personnel, the flight took off at 2:40 p.m.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

Anchorage Daily News