A United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Amsterdam was forced to make an emergency landing last night after an apparent pressurisation issue and air conditioning problem. A spokesperson for the airline confirmed the incident, adding that all 252 passengers and crew were unharmed and deplaned normally after the Boeing 787-9 suddenly made its emergency descent.
United Airlines flight UA968 departed San Francisco at just after 3pm on Sunday afternoon bound for Europe. But a little over five hours later it had made an unscheduled landing into Bangor Airport on the very eastern edge of the United States.
So why did United Airlines choose this tiny Maine airport to divert an international flight and all its passengers? After all, United Airlines normally only operates a few regional flights from this small outpost every day so you wouldn’t expect it to have the resources to deal with this diversion.
Well, it’s actually the remote location that makes Bangor Airport so attractive for diverting flights and yesterdays unexpected arrival isn’t the unusual or out of place occurrence you might expect.
Bangor Airport doesn’t have any scheduled international flights but its more than used to dealing with international flights that have been forced to divert for all manner of reasons – from medical emergencies, disruptive passengers and mechanical problems (just like the incident that unfolded on yesterday’s UA968).
“I hate to use the word routine, but we work these flights all the time,” explained Anthony Caruso, the airport’s manager back in 2012 when he spoke to the Wall Street Journal.
The airport, you see, is the first and last major airport on U.S. soil that is capable of dealing of dealing with diverted flights that are heading for an Atlantic crossing. An unexpected arrival into Bangor may well be inconvenient but it’s not nearly as awkward as dealing with international immigration and customs in say Canada or even Iceland.
It’s a role that Bangor Airport is more than used to taking on from its 24-hour “dispatch operations center”. Its massive 11,440-foot-long runway can manage the largest of passenger planes and it has even bought tug’s capable of pushing back Airbus A380 superjumbos.
There’s an international terminal with four empty gates and seating for around 700 passengers – according to the WSJ, sometimes even that ample room isn’t enough. Especially when winter storms cause multiple diversions. Airport workers are trained in multiple disciplines trained so they can all muck in an get a diverted plane back up in the air as fast as possible.
Apparently, the airport has an agreement with a local tour company to get stranded passengers bussed across the area to local hotels if they need to stay the night. And when they’re busy, the airport calls in school buses. That’s exactly where the passengers on UA968 would have found themselves last night – having spent the night in Maine while United sourced a replacement plane for them.
So there you go. Mystery solved.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.