“I Was Kept on a Plane for 34 Hours”

About 250 trapped passengers watched helplessly as their plane was emptied of food, water, fuel, and the crew.

plane on tarmac

ON MARCH 30, 2014, Luke Hopewell and about 250 other passengers boarded Cathay Pacific Flight CX831 at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport, expecting to touch down in Hong Kong 15 hours later. Hopewell, the editor of Gizmodo Australia, a technology website, often travels back and forth between his home near Sydney and the United States via Hong Kong for business.

Including the nine-hour Sydney flight, the whole day would be “unpleasant yet manageable,” Hopewell wrote in a blog a few days later.

About an hour before Hong Kong, it began to storm. Lightning flashed, and rain, wind, and hail shook the Boeing 777. The pilot then relayed some news to his passengers: The Hong Kong International Airport ground crew had announced that the severe weather would make a landing too dangerous, and the flight was being redirected to nearby Zhuhai Jinwan Airport.

A half hour later, the plane landed in Zhuhai. “The next several hours were tense,” wrote Hopewell. “It was pouring rain.” The passengers figured the storm would keep them in Zhuhai for the night.

Hopewell and the other passengers began gathering their bags to move to the airport terminal. But again, the captain’s voice crackled over the speaker: “The Chinese government will not let us off the plane.”

This time, the issue was a lack of immigration and customs officials in the Zhuhai airport to process the travelers from the United States. In addition, the flight crew had reached their maximum number of hours on the plane and would have to leave. It would take hours for a new crew to arrive.

By now, “the plane had run out of food and water and fuel for the auxiliary engine that was keeping the air-conditioning on,” wrote Hopewell.

Over the next 16 hours, Hopewell rationed a package of Oreo cookies, took tiny sips of water from a small bottle, and tried to distract himself from the maddening boredom by playing games on his iPad and watching movies over and over. Around 2 p.m. the next day, nearly 34 hours after leaving New York, Flight CX831 was finally airborne again, landing in Hong Kong about an hour later.

As the harried passengers disembarked, Cathay Pacific representatives handed each of them an apology letter and a check for 1,000 Hong Kong dollars (approximately $130).

After a few more hours at the airport, Hopewell forced himself to board the nine-hour flight to Sydney, but he hasn’t flown since. “I’m still deciding if I can ever get back on a 777,” he wrote.

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