United Airlines was forced to divert a Newark-bound flight from Athens, Greece to Iceland because the pilots ‘timed out’ after a lengthy delay in Greece that occurred when one of three pilots tested positive of COVID-19.
Once on the ground in the Icelandic capital Reykjavík, a new crew of pilots and flight attendants took over, and after a further three-hour delay due to an unrelated medical incident, the flight eventually took off for Newark again.
The unexpected diversion occurred on Sunday after United Airlines flight UA125 from Athens to Newark was delayed on the ground in Greece by around five hours for an unrelated issue which meant that the crew didn’t have enough hours to fly all the way to Newark.
The maximum number of hours that pilots and flight attendants are allowed to work is managed by a system called ‘flight time limitations’ which is designed to prevent aircrew from working when fatigued.
Normally, three pilots would work in shifts to operate such a long flight, but with one stranded in Athens in order to quarantine, the FTL threshold for the two-pilot operation was so restrictive that they couldn’t get all the way to Newark.
United had limited options – either wait for a third pilot to join them or send the flight out but with a stopover for a crew change. United opted for the latter option, positioning a new set of crew from the United States to meet the plane in Iceland.
Not everyone on the flight was particularly happy with United’s decision, however. On Twitter, one passenger said “one stupid decision after another got us from Athens to a small airport in Reykjavik with no infrastructure to support this flight”.
Another described the delay in Iceland as a “total mess” after United had initially said the diversion would result in just a “quick stop”.
Although the diversion made for a very long journey for the passengers aboard UA125, the only other option would have been an even longer delay in Athens so that the original crew could get some much-needed rest.
Edited to note the reason for crew change was because one of three pilots tested positive for COVID-19.
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.