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United Airlines Diverts Newark Bound Flight to Iceland For a Crew Change After Pilots and Flight Attendants ‘Time Out’

United Airlines Diverts Newark Bound Flight to Iceland For a Crew Change After Pilots and Flight Attendants ‘Time Out’

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.

View Comments (23)
  • How did they not know this was going to happen before they left Greece? Also, a “short delay” turns into 3 hours for the passengers. Additionally, it is safer to continue the flight with a crew that is slightly over time then it is to divert to an unknown airport, perform an additional landing and takeoff (historically the most dangerous sections of a flight) then it would have been to just continue to Newark and pay the fine. Bad planning on AA’s management, as usual.

    • The regs are the regs. Obviously they knew, or there wouldn’t have been a place to land and a crew to take over. The pilots didn’t decide to pop in at KEF in case a crew was hanging around.

    • I guarantee you they did know they were flag stopping before they left Athens. A crew cannot depart on a flight knowing they are going to go over time limits, according to the FAA. If they had left on time and should have been within the limits and then something happened, sure, then they could continue on. Otherwise, not a chance.

  • You everyone had rather the flight got cancelled.. I’m praising united for that one. Passengers on the other hand would never understand

    • Social media is filled with knucklehead who have time to complain. Whereas not ideal to depart with the possibility of this happening, United did exactly the right thing for the safety of air travel. It’s never perfect. But the logistics of flight are mind boggling. And the reason why everyone should be thankful flying is the safest mode of transportation is EXACTLY because of “ZERO FAILURE MINDSET”safety protocols they followed here. So just say, “thank you” for getting me, my family home safely by doing your job, albeit a little late.

      • A comment from someone on the flight who has an opinion that counts. Thank you!
        Flying is fraught with unknowns. So many regulations have been established to deal with some of the , to quote a former Secretary of Defense, known unknowns— weather, illness, malfunctions, passenger issues—and others are put in place to keep crew and passengers as safe as possible while in the care of those who fly big objects through the sky. I, for one, prefer flying with those who plan ahead to have a system in place for countering the possibilities for failure. I’d rather not fly with a fly-by-night organization manned by cowboys who choose to make their own rules.
        I am sure the airline knew exactly what facilities the airport had and the capabilities of it handling their equipment. That’s their business to know and other regulations provide the information to help them establish the feasibility of such a landing.
        Remember 9-11 when planes bound for the US were all quickly re-routed? The airlines did a masterful job of landing hundred of planes, some with little notice, in places few Americans ever go ( with small, low traffic facilities).
        In fact, there is a wonderful book on that very subject, The Day the World Came to Town by Jim DeFede.

    • Exactly. United took the action that minimized the delay and therefore was least disruptive to paxs’ schedules. Kudos.

  • This is air industry safety at its best. This is why hospital safety standards and outcomes have improved so much in the last 20 years. Doctors (and others) simply don’t think and perform as well at around 12 hours. I had no insight into this as a 26 year old intern, working 30 hours straight in the 1970s. When something goes wrong, it can go very bad very quickly in medicine and in a plane cruising at 39,000 feet. It’s called “being impaired”.

  • I was on this flight. We DID know this was happening. It was announced a day before take off. The info in this article is not a fully overview, and per what we were told on the plane, it was not a “get rest” issue for the crew; it was that one of the original pilots came down with covid and, we were told, transatlantic flights must have 2 pilots, so the crew needed to change. This article is badly researched (bad journalism), but I do agree with the fact that the flight was a huge mess and could have been infinitely better handled by United Airlines. The articles also doesn’t mention that there was a medical emergency on the plane when we landed in Iceland, and that also affected the departure from Iceland.

  • Oh, boo-boo. United just diverted us for 7 hours in Scott’s Bluff Nebraska on a similar deal. Why a nearly timed-out crew was diverted rather than getting priority for landing in Denver blows my mind. Right up until the new crew arrived, nobody could tell us whether they would really arrive or whether instead we’d be stranded overnight in a small waiting room with no services after the airport crew timed out. Fortunately, after 7 hours they came through, and the airport crew was great. But no help for people with missed connecting flights arriving at midnight with no arrangements, and no way to predict what to do ahead of time. Oh, and most folks had no bars, and no way to get wifi. Oh, and then when we landed, they could not unload checked luggage, car seats and such even if you could find a room, until the ground crews arrived for the morning shift. Try that one with little kids.

    • One correction. The flight got in 7 hours late. I think we were “only” on the tarmac and then in the NE airport for about 5 hours.

  • Seems much like trucker regs. So many driving hours require 10 hours downtime so many more hours require a 36 hours out of truck can’t even sleep in your bed in it. So sorry if government regs inconvenience you. They inconvenience everyone.

  • Another blog posted that one of the three pilots required on an Athens-Newark flight tested positive for covid so could not fly. Flying to Reykjavik allowed the AC to leave Athens with the two remaining pilots while another crew was staged at Reykjavik to fly the remainder. Leaving Reykjavik got delayed because one pax got ill on the flight using up a med kit so they had to wait for a kit to be acquired.

  • This flight diverted because of a sick call in Athens for a crew member, it was further delayed due to a sick passenger in Iceland.

  • Why is this news? Sounds like the kind of thing that happens all the time. Rules are rules! People get over yourselves!

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