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Broken toilets strand United passengers in Alaska

By Mike M. Ahlers and Lizzie O'Leary, CNN
updated 7:47 PM EDT, Wed March 21, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Flight from San Francisco to Shanghai landed after lavatories broke
  • Replacement plane also had mechanical problems
  • Passenger says she got one $12 meal voucher but not her luggage
  • United apologizes, says it is reaching out to customers

Washington (CNN) -- If there's a contest for worst travel experience of the year, United Airlines Flight 857 might be in the running.

The plane departed San Francisco on Sunday for a 13-hour trip to Shanghai. But most of the 262 passengers didn't get to China until Tuesday evening -- three days late -- after an unplanned and prolonged layover in Anchorage, Alaska.

About three hours into the flight, the United jetliner was diverted to Anchorage because of broken bathrooms. When a replacement plane arrived Monday, it also was grounded because of mechanical problems, prompting most of the passengers to catch a third plane Tuesday.

"It was just one thing after the other," said Kristin Bishop, who was on a business trip from Chicago. "It was honestly unbelievable. We couldn't believe it. It definitely was the flight from hell."

Flight 857 shows the impact -- and limits -- of the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, designed to protect passengers from being held on tarmac-bound jets. In this instance, United appeared to go to great lengths to avoid violating the tarmac rule, which fines airlines if they keep passengers on ground-bound planes more than four hours, with some exceptions.

But a string of delays and mechanical problems plagued the voyage almost from the very beginning.

Passengers said the the flight left San Francisco at 2 p.m. Sunday, and the first inkling of trouble came three hours later, when the pilot announced a detour to Anchorage because of problems with several of the Boeing 777's lavatories. According to Bishop, the captain announced, "You may have noticed some lavatories aren't working. We're making an unplanned stop in Anchorage."

When the plane landed, Bishop said, the passengers sat for an hour and a half before they were allowed to get off and wait in a secure area.

That wait lasted about four hours, Bishop said, before they got word that the flight was canceled and that a replacement plane would arrive the next day.

"They told us to wait in line and get our meal and hotel vouchers. But it just took them hours and hours to make that announcement, and there was only one guy handing out the vouchers," Bishop said. "And they were checking us off one-by-one, so it took like 10 minutes per person to get your voucher, and there was like 280 of us, I believe."

When all was said and done, passengers got one $12 meal voucher, Bishop said.

Bishop said she was issued her hotel voucher shortly after midnight, and the airline refused to release people's luggage, which contained clothing and medication.

The bad luck continued Monday.

When passengers arrived at 11 a.m. for the 1 p.m. flight, they were informed that the flight had been delayed 2½ hours, Bishop said. Once on the second plane, they waited a couple more hours before the captain made an announcement.

"They announced that that plane also has broke down," Bishop said. "The captain acknowledged that it was ironic, which is one way to put it."

Passengers were told that another replacement plane would arrive Tuesday.

Bishop said she opted to catch a red-eye plane back. For several dozen passengers who opted to take that overnight flight to San Francisco, there was added drama when lightning harmlessly struck their plane.

In a statement Wednesday, United said it provided its customers with hotel accommodations and meal options and provided a different Boeing 777 aircraft. It made no mention of that aircraft's mechanical problems.

"We sincerely apologize to our customers for the delays and are fully refunding their tickets. We are also actively reaching out to our customers to offer additional compensation," the statement read.

A Department of Transportation spokesman said Wednesday that the agency had received one complaint. "We sent the complaint to United and asked them to reply to the passenger," Bill Mosley said.

Meanwhile, Bishop says she still doesn't have her luggage. "The luggage is in China. Hopefully, I'll get it back," she said.

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