We felt like the first airline passengers to be taken hostage by an airline.
They won't be making a disaster movie out of this little jaunt. Unless they call it "The Flight of the Albatross." Or "Boredom at 63 Feet."
TWA FLight 19 from Washington to Los Angeles was supposed to leave Dulles Airport at 5:10 Wednesday evening. Then it was delayed until 8 p.m. Then it was delayed until 1 in the morning.
Then the airline said, in effect, let's forget the whole thing.
But for the passengers, it was surely one of those flights they would never forget, though not for lack of trying. Before finally taking off on a United flight to L.A. at noon the next day, they had spent seven hours in the TWA plane while it sat on the runway.
Acutally it was not so much "they" as "we," for I was a passenger on Flight 19 and I owe it to my fellow passengers to tell our story. We were prisoners of the jet age that is supposed to have shrunk the world to the size of a pimple. We were not held captive at gunpoint, nor really at the point of anything. But repeatedly we were told that if we wanted to abandon ship, our luggage couldn't. It would have to stay on board.
So those who bailed out early didn't get their luggage until we got ours - 24 hours later when it came tumbling in off the following day's Flight 19 from Dulles.
We who remained were like the stock cross section on the standard Hollywood ship-of-fools; a tall laidback hippie; a red-headed brother and sister; a little boy whose crying bouts were abated by parents through the judicious application of a giant stuffed teddy bear; an extremely tall black man who ascertained the name and address of the CAB's consumer representatives; a sweet little old gray-haired couple with shopping bags filled to the brim; a priest - not defrocked, as is the custom in such dramas but, in fact, in full frock; and, of course, a brooding cynical journalist.
In truth all were free to leave but about 65 stayed on to the very bitter end in a spirit of stubborn optimism - or because they were flying at the "super saver" cheap-cheap rate, which the stewardesses said was not transferable to any other airlines.
At first it sounded so simple - like the first case of the plague in a small town being mistaken for the sniffles. After waiting 30 minutes on the Dulles mobile Lounge that takes passengers to their plane, we were told by airline personnel that a "very, very minor" malfunction of the plane's hydraulic system had developed. We delounged. We waited in the airport for half an hour. Then we were told that the pilot expected the plane to be fixed by 8 o'clock. Then, instead of having us wait in the "crowded airport," TWA would take us to the plane, serve us dinner, and then, whoosh, 8 o'clock and off we go.
This turned out to be a lot of wild blue yonder.
At 8 o'clock the pilot had a new bulletin. The malfunctioning part of the hydraulic system had to be replaced. The only available spare part was in Kansas City, Mo., TWA's corporate home. It would be sent on a "puddle jumper" that would make three other stops en route. We wouldn't be airborne before 1 o'clock in the morning and would arrive in Los Angeles at 6:30 a.m. Eastern Standard time.
We were encouraged to remain with the plane. And the stewardesses, already looking guilt-stricken, were told that help, indeed, was on the way."
"They are sending a PR woman out right now," said a ground crew member cheerfully.
"PR stands for public relations."
The PR woman announced that sure, we would leave the aircraft and be taken back to the terminal.But, she said, TWA's information was that all the next day's flights to Los Angeles were fully booked, so that if we left Flight 19, who knew when we'd get to LA.
Yet when the chips were down on Thursday - when a replacement plane TWA promised failed to show up - the United flight was able to accommodate all the remaining Flight 19 passengers with no apparent struggle.
But we didn't know this, sitting out there in our beached Ark on the cold, cold runway with its lanes outlined in pretty blue lights. We watched a lousy movie, "Outlaw Blues," with most of its naughty words cut out. We wandered around the plane, even into the empty cockpit, and class distinctions collapsed as tourist passengers braved the first-class section.
One teen-age boy swung around and around in one of its swivel seats.
Three businessmen imbibed with rousing vigor.
And of course, we ate and ate and ate. The chateaubriand was out of this world. Unfortunately, we weren't.
Then, at 1:30 a.m., the comedy of errors reached dizzying heights. The missing part had arrived from Kansas City, and only one thing was wrong. It was the wrong part.
Actually, according to John Corris, TWA's Director of Corporate Communications in Washington, D.C., it wasn't that the part was wrong, just that the problem - a leak in a hydraulic line in a most inaccessible part of the engine - was a lot more complicated than had been thought at first.
"It's a critical thing," he said, "what we call a 'go' or 'no-go' item."
Corris sighed and said that TWA had tried to get another plane but, as this was still considered a holiday week, nothing was available. "It was one of those things where you met yourself coming around the corner," he said, likening it to "bringing your car in for repair - the guy tells you it'll be ready tonight and you get it three days later."
He said that "happily" Flight 19's problems are rare. "I've been in the business 30 years," he said, and this is one of the few (like this) I've come across. Except, he added, "in the early days in Chicago we used to have some beauts . . . "
At 2 a.m. we were taken off the aircraft, put into Greyhound buses, and moved over to a nearby hotel. We would be awakened at 7 a.m. and bused back to the plane for a 9:20 a.m. departure, we were told.
But when I woke up at 8:15, I sensed that something was wrong. It didn't take much clairvoyance.
The bus would arrive at 10:30, the hotel operator said. It arrived at 11 a.m. - this time only one bus, so that many of the passengers had to stand up, including our resident priest, absolutely just like you see in the "Airport" movies.
Back at the terminal, Flight 19 was now Flight 6019. But this was an academic issue since there was no plane. After all the Flight 19 passengers had gone through the security X-ray machine, they were told to go back out again to the passenger service desk. There they learned that they would be put on United's noon flight to Los Angeles. (Some passengers did get a later TWA flight.)
On the United flight, they wouldn't believe our horror stories. Just think, we'll be telling them to our grandchildren. Maybe there will even be a folk song - "The Ballad of Flight 19," no music, no lyrics. I proposed that we all hold a reunion 10 years hence and try to break the endurance record for sitting on an aircraft that went nowhere and which no looney parties had taken over unless you want to count the company that owned it.
"For what it's worth," the PR woman had said on the bus that took us to the hotel, "I apologize." She was almost sobbing. The hostages began to feel sympathy for their captors.
At baggage claim in L. A., we crowded a room to fill out forms to retrieve our still-absent baggage. The little baby in its mother's arms, who had been smiling through the whole ordeal, kept smiling. If not for that baby, we might have turned into a howling, looting mob.
Though the airline had promised to send us our luggage when it arrived, some of us, fearing one more foul-up, showed up to greet it in person when it arrived on Thursday's Flight 19, a mere one day late.
One man took it philosophically. "What has happened," he said, "is that I have been cheated out of 24 hours of my life."
There are 8 million stories in the naked sky. This has been one of them.