The vomit comet
Mainstream media and social-network users have not been kind to the airlines over the past several months. In some cases of less than exemplary customer service, the negative publicity is well-deserved. That being said, the handful of edited Youtube snippets being broadcast on network television can be mischaracterized, overblown, distorted and taken out of context.
I won’t use this forum to otherwise defend or condemn my industry. However, when you cram people into a long, narrow aluminum tube for an extended period of time, the worst in humanity is sure to surface. And in some circumstances, the results fall into the bizarre category of “You just can’t make this stuff up.” I had the pleasure of being the captain on one of those flights.
Shortly after our exit from the company ramp at JFK, and partly into my first movement of the tiller to steer our 777 onto a parallel taxiway, the alert chime rang in the cockpit. A momentary glance at the text on the bottom of the center-console control display unit screen indicated that the purser, our lead flight attendant, Joanna, was calling.
Taxiing the aircraft is considered a sterile environment, an operational phase of which flight attendants are aware, so the interruption implied that the forthcoming communication was not good news. That being said, I had earlier briefed all 11 flight attendants that the sterile period can be violated in case of pertinent circumstances.
I raised my eyebrows and gestured at the interphone. Jack, my first officer, unsnapped the handset from its cradle on the center console while I continued the business of keeping 14 wheels on the concrete of the taxiway.
During the course of the conversation Jack maintained a neutral expression, nodding a few times. He spoke into the handset, responding to the flight attendant at the other end of the line with a series of OKS. Barely 30 seconds passed before Jack reseated the intercom back onto its cradle.
Jack shrugged his shoulders and said, “Apparently, one of our passengers is an epileptic, traveling with her husband. All the appropriate medications are in her possession. Joanna and the passenger just wanted us to be aware.” “OK. Good to know,” I replied. We completed the before-takeoff checklist, taxied onto Runway 13R, pushed the thrust levers forward on two RollsRoyce engines and climbed gracefully skyward. Jack and I fell into the normal routine of beginning the preparation for a North Atlantic crossing to London, which involved obtaining alternate airport weather, establishing controllerpilot datalink communications contact, requesting an oceanic clearance and other assorted organizational tasks.
When the chime alert sounded in the cockpit not quite two hours later, I had a feeling that it wasn’t good news. Was the epileptic woman experiencing a seizure? Nope. Another woman, seated in the first-class cabin, had suddenly passed out. At some point prior, the woman had vomited in a lavatory and obliterated the entire space to such a degree that flight attendants were forced to block it from further use.
A migraine was considered as the possible culprit, but after further investigation, it was discovered that similar symptoms had occurred whenever the woman traveled via airplane. Great. In a calm and professional demeanor,
Joanna indicated that medical assistance had been summoned and she was awaiting a response. She would keep me updated.
Meanwhile, Jack and I discussed medical-diversion options. It was determined that St. John’s in Newfoundland, Canada, would be the best airport in terms of proximity and favorable weather. In addition, we reviewed the required procedures to depart from our assigned North Atlantic track.
Departing the track requires careful execution. Why? Simply stated: collision avoidance. Because of sophistication and accuracy, navigation systems have allowed for less separation between aircraft both laterally and vertically. Tracks, or routes, are 30 miles apart, with only 1,000 feet of altitude above or below. The available altitudes start at 29,000 feet and end at 43,000 feet. An airplane that has to go elsewhere because of an emergency can potentially create a conflict.
Emergencies that involve the inability to maintain the assigned altitude — e.g., an engine failure — require an immediate turn off the track of at least 45 degrees until such time that a 15-mile offset is reached. Once established on the offset in either direction of the intended alternate (ahead or behind the airplane), a descent can be initiated. When the airplane descends below 28,000 feet, the flight can proceed direct to the alternate. Although medical emergencies can utilize different procedures, the requirement to depart the track, at least via the assigned altitude, is still necessary.
While the track departure procedure is occurring, the applicable emergency checklist has to be initiated, the airplane has to be maneuvered correctly via the autopilot and navigation guidance, a mayday has to be declared, communication has to be established with the appropriate oceanic facility, the flight attendants and passengers need to be informed and company dispatch has to be notified — just to name a few.
In addition, Jack and I confirmed that satellite communications were properly set in order to contact the airline physician on call via our dispatcher. All that being said, I felt relatively confident the situation wouldn’t warrant any of those procedures. My evaluation was correct. A radiologist had responded to the sick woman. With use of the onboard medical kit, it was determined that her vital signs were normal. No diversion necessary. Cool.
During the course of my interphone conversations with our purser, further details were brought to my attention. Apparently, a nervous flier seated in the vicinity of the sick passenger had begun a series of interrogations regarding the status of the woman to the point it reached a level that went beyond idle curiosity but fell just short of mild hysteria.
Ironically, the epileptic woman, who seemed to be the most likely candidate for a medical emergency, had volunteered to assist. She claimed to be a qualified EMT. It was a noble gesture if not for one minor issue. Apparently, the EMT’S normal MO before flying was to self-prescribe two Xanax, which she readily admitted to the purser. Joanna politely declined her offer to help.
And finally, after professionally supervising the stressful situation, Joanna took the opportunity to make use of the flight-attendant bunk after delaying her original rest break. When she returned to her duties an hour and a half before our landing at Heathrow, Joanna was greeted with a second round of vomiting. Only this time, the sick woman had aimed for the floor area just in front of the assigned purser jumpseat. Adding insult to injury at its best.
Although the term “vomit comet” has become synonymous with aircraft utilized to demonstrate the effect of weightlessness, mostly with NASA astronauts, I could now say that our flight had been ordained as such, but for different reasons, of course.
In any case, the events of the flight lent credence to the fact that sometimes you just really can’t make this stuff up. See you on my next trip!