The Crash Landing of Southwest 345

southwest345Last week the plane my family and I were traveling on crash landed.

I read somewhere that technically what we experienced isn’t considered a crash landing, but in my mind when a plane hits the runway nose first, crushes the front landing gear, and skids 2,175 feet in a shower of sparks before stopping, it’s a crash landing.

As the plane approached the runway, I was already a little nervous. The landing had been delayed due to bad weather and the plane had been in a holding pattern for over 30 minutes. At some point a flight attendant instructed everyone to not only check their own seat belt, but also check the seat belt of the passenger next to them. I’d never heard such an instruction before, so I thought something must be wrong.

Our descent felt shaky, then without warning we hit the runway with a loud BANG. People whose seat belts were loose yelled in surprise as they were thrown into the seatbacks in front of them. The engines made a horrific noise as the plane scraped down the runway, drowning out the sound of falling belongings and scared passengers. Amazingly, someone captured the experience on video.

After the plane stopped moving, we heard nothing from the cockpit. We sat for a moment wondering what to do next. Some people got up to retrieve their carry-on bags from the overhead bins, causing a flight attendant to grab the intercom and yell, “We are not at the gate, please stay in your seats!”

Then I smelled something burning. Could just be the brakes, I told myself, and I didn’t see any smoke in the rear section where I was seated (those in the front section, however, did report seeing smoke).

Soon we were told to exit the rear of the plane using the emergency chute. Everyone was on their feet, and there were shouts to “leave your carry-ons.”

Rescue personnel surrounded the bottom of the chute to catch people as they came down, which they did admirably (although I did witness one unfortunate woman tumble into the grass somehow). I slid down, then waited for my son to slide down behind me and was quickly pointed to an area some distance from the plane that I needed to get to right away.

Once we reached safety, I turned around to see the plane for the first time. That was when I realized what had happened and how serious it could’ve been. The landing felt very rough, certainly, but I didn’t expect to see the plane nose down at the edge of the runway being sprayed with fire hoses.

Like many other passengers I pulled out my phone and started capturing pictures and videos. A policeman angrily approached me, asking me to “stop filming please.” I asked why but couldn’t hear his reply.

Soon we were corralled into buses which remained motionless for quite a while. Every few minutes the doors would open so someone could come onto the bus and count us, or ask us if we needed medical attention. They’d leave, and a few minutes later someone else would do the same thing.

Eventually the buses took us away from the runway and to the airport, where we were led to a room set aside for passengers of the flight. Everyone was asked whether they needed medical attention, and now that the adrenaline was wearing off several people were feeling the pain and chose to be looked at. I should’ve been among them – I hit the seat in front of me pretty hard – but didn’t want to leave my family.

We sat waiting for information about what had happened, how we could get our bags, and when we could leave, but Southwest seemed ill-prepared to deal with the situation. To their credit Southwest made sure we had plenty of food and water while we waited, but representatives sent to talk to passengers tossed out platitudes like “your safety is our biggest concern,” which did little to assuage those who needed medicine that had been left on the plane.

At random intervals a woman would pop into the room and say, “we have no further information at this time, but we will let you know as soon as we have any information.”

Hours earlier everyone was thankful for walking away from that botched landing, but now people were becoming tired, frustrated, and angry at Southwest. We were given conflicting reports of what to do and how long we’d be there. One minute we were told our suitcases were waiting for us in the baggage retrieval area, the next minute we were told they were still on the plane.

Eventually my family and I decided to leave and have Southwest deliver our bags once they were retrieved from the plane. I was hesitant to do this because my carry-on contained an expensive Retina MacBook Pro and several other electronics, but it was very late, we were very tired, and Southwest had just offered to pay for everyone’s transportation away from the airport.

A Southwest representative told a group of us to follow “the guy in the red jacket” who would take us to the ground transportation area. Instead, he took us to the baggage area to retrieve our bags – which, of course, weren’t there. We had to explain to him that he was supposed to get us transportation.

When we arrived outside we saw a large group of fellow passengers waiting, unhappily, in the taxi line. Whoever was making arrangements was unable to “contact the right manager” about getting everyone on their way efficiently, so instead an unfortunate Southwest rep was leaning into every cab, explaining the situation to each driver – who didn’t always understand English – then paying for the ride up front with a credit card. In our case, the taxi driver didn’t understand the rep at all and kept asking if he was riding with us. It would’ve been comical if we weren’t so tired.

The next day Southwest delivered our bags to our hotel but my carry-on wasn’t among them. It arrived a day later – without my MacBook Pro. That, along with an Apple TV and a Lightning cable, had been stolen from my bag.

Southwest has agreed to reimburse me for these items once I provide proof that I purchased them (no problem, I have receipts). They claim the items weren’t stolen but were more likely “misplaced” by someone sent on board to retrieve carry-on bags.

I am, of course, concerned about my stolen belongings and bothered by Southwest’s initial sloppy handling. But it’s hard to complain too much given that my family and I walked away from what could’ve been a much worse situation.

And in the end we had a fantastic week in New York together, which ironically is due in part to my not having a laptop to distract me with work-related things.

Update: Last night we flew home (yes, we were nervous during the landing), and on our doorstep found a FedEx package from Southwest which contained a check reimbursing us for the trip along with two round-trip tickets anywhere in the U.S. for each family member.