I arrived at New York’s LaGuardia Airport on June 25th 2023, at around 8:30am ready for my 53 day Journey to Asia. I was heading to my summer job as a travel counselor for teens traveling to Japan and Korea and didn’t know what to expect. I headed to the airport with spirits high and excitement. Little did I know that this was going to be a very long day that included my first ever deviated flight experience with United Airlines. A flight diversion occurs when an aircraft is unable to arrive at its final destination. Apparently only about 0.2% of flights in America gets diverted. My flight route was LGA (New York’s LaGuardia Airport) – IAD (Washington’s Dulles International Airport)- HND (Tokyo’s Haneda Airport) arriving at 3:25pm the following day. Here is my United Airlines diverted flight experience.
At around 9:00am, I passed through check-in and TSA smoothly and was waiting patiently for my UA3640 flight from LGA (LaGuardia Airport) to IAD (Dulles International Airport) at 10:22am. I was at the gate more than an hour early, and was ready for the long journey ahead. As I was waiting for boarding time to get closer, I kept on hearing announcements saying that my flight was delayed. I grew more and more concerned since my next flight from Dulles International Airport to Haneda Airport (Tokyo) only had a 45-minute connection time.
I went to a united customer service counter and told them my concern. Luckily, there were actually 12 other people on the flight who was trying to make the same connection as me. The attendant was confused as to why the system let us book a flight with such a small connection, and told all of us to always book for a connection that is more than an hour going forward. This ticket was bought by my travel teen company, so I didn’t really have a say in the booking process. Since the flight was reportedly being delayed an hour, the attendant offered us the option of rebooking our flight to IAD for tomorrow as she thought we were definitely not going to make the connection. But I denied the offer and stayed positive, I had a gut feeling that our flight out of IAD would also be delayed.
At around 10:30am we started boarding the flight that originally would of taken off already if it was on time. As we were all boarding the aircraft, the gate agents ensured all of us who were connecting to the UA803 Tokyo flight at IAD, that the aircraft was going to be held for us. This statement really made me reassured and relaxed during the flight there.
We were finally in the air at around 11am, and it was a quick flight, with the flight time only being about an hour long. Once we landed at around 12pm in IAD, I speed walked to the gate for UA 803 flight. Thankfully it was in the same terminal, but it was quite far from the gate that we got off at. The UA 803 flight was also slightly delayed and was supposed to depart at 12:30pm, but when I got to the gate at around 12:10pm, people were still boarding.
After a slight ground hold, it took off from IAD at 1:20pm. Even before the food came out, I started get sleepy and took a quick nap for the long 14 hour flight. At about 3:15pm, 2 hours into our flight as I was going in and out of my sleep, I heard an announcement through my headphones: “We will land in Dulles International Airport in an hour”. I quickly shot up in confusion and asked the passenger next to me, “Did I hear that right? We are going back to Washington?” “Yea, there seems to be a technical issue, so they turned the flight around”. I was in pure confusion, mostly also due to the fact that I had just woken up from my nap. I checked the flight map to see that the flight has indeed made a U-Turn.
I looked out my window and saw that they were dumping all the fuel out of the aircraft. When not enough fuel is consumed during a flight or there is an emergency situation, dumping the fuel makes for a lighter airplane and, therefore, less stress on the plane itself, and makes the plane’s landing smoother, easier, and much safer. This was definitely a sight that was uncommon to see, and I had the window seat to soak it all in.
I’m not sure how long they had been dumping fuel before I noticed, but they continued to do so for another 20 minutes. The aircraft kept on flying in circles dumping the fuel at the border of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. As I was waiting for the desend, I heard a flight attendant tell another passenger that the divert happened since the aircraft was “unsafe to fly”. Since I was sleeping during the initial announcement, it was interesting to hear how the crew actually phrased the situation.
We landed back in Washington safely at around 4:30pm. Below is a screenshot of the information from my flight, and the start of my diverted flight experience.
The UA 803 seems usually use the Boeing B777-200 aircraft and it has about 276 seats. This meant that after we landed, over 250 other people were trying to find a different way to Tokyo. I deboarded the plane at 4:45pm and went onto the customer service counter that was closest to the aircraft, but the line was insane, so I walked about 10 minutes to a different terminal cause I was told the line was shorter, but to honest, it wasn’t any better and the wait still looked long. Everyone around me was also from that same exact flight and we all bonded over how insane this was. I was trying to change my flight through my reservations number online, but couldn’t since I was technically already checked in to this flight through the system. Since my teen travel company booked my flight with their email address, I also wasn’t getting any updates through their emails as well.
I called my company to tell them my diverted flight experience, and they said they couldn’t do much to help, and to just use my best judgment when changing my flight. After waiting on the customer service line for about 30 minutes without any signs getting close to the counter, I decided to call United since it might get get me to someone faster. After over 100 minutes of being on hold, at around 8pm I finally got connected to someone and she was able to officially change my flight to the same UA 803 for the following day’s flight, but said I still needed to talk to someone at united in person for the hotel and meal vouchers for the night.
I actually felt lucky that I was able to fly the next day. The lady on the phone said that there were no seats available to the public on UA 803 for June 26 but there seats there were blacked out (seats saved for important purposes) and went out her way to ask her supervisor to get me a seat. The people around me who connected to the phone’s customer service were getting multiple flights flying to different cities to get to Tokyo, and even getting to Tokyo 3 days later then planned.
At 8:45pm I was finally at the front of the customer service line, this totaled to 4 hours waiting in line to get my diverted flight experience sorted. The customer service agent put me in The Westin Reston Heights Hotel for the night, and gave me a $30 Meal Voucher to use. The agents service was actually pleasant amidst all the chaos around.
When handing me the vouchers, the agent told me that there was a shuttle bus that runs from the airport shuttle area to the hotel and to wait there. I confirmed where the pick up location is with the agent, and he said I didn’t need to pick up my baggage as it will automatically be put on tomorrow’s flight. I headed out the maze that is Dulles International Airport and finally got some fresh air at the hotel shuttle service area in front of the airport at around 9pm. Every shuttle that passed by, I asked if it was going to The Westin Reston Heights Hotel, and every time I got the same response, “no”.
After waiting about an hour and seeing the same shuttle buses making their second and third runs, I started to feel like something wasn’t right. I went to the The Westin Reston Heights Hotel website and saw that the hotel actually doesn’t provide at hotel shuttle from the airport. I made the mistake of trusting the united agent’s words and waited for an hour for a shuttle bus that was never coming. Also, this whole time, I thought was in the Washington DC area, but turned out I was 26 miles west of downtown Washington D.C and was in Virginia.
I headed back inside the airport to a United counter to ask them to change my hotel to one that actually has a shuttle service from the airport. It was mind boggling that United would provide a hotel to their customers that has no shuttle service, while claiming that they did. Very calmly, I went up to an agent and explained my situation and the agent replied “wait on line like everyone else, I cannot help you” I told her that I understand, however, I already waited on line for 4 hours beforehand and the hotel that was given to me by United has no shuttle, and I just need my hotel to be changed. She then said “Wait on line” and walked away from me with no compassion. I was already exhausted from starting the day early at 8am to get to LGA airport that tears started going down my face due to frustration and tiredness. I went to another counter with a free agent with tears going down my face and asked if he can help and he also said with no, and that I had to wait in line and walked away from me.
I was so frustrated and my face looked like a tomato, I didn’t want to wait on a line that looked like another 4 hours wait, or call a taxi in that state I was in. Since there were no benches around in the terminal, I just sat by the wall by the united check in area and tried to sob in quiet, while calming my self down. It was very heartwarming to see a handful of other passengers coming up to me asking if I was okay and if there was anyway for them to help me. I replied that I was okay, and I just needed time to calm down. Also note, I am 24 years old but I look younger then my age, and often gets mistaken for under 18. It was embarrassing crying in the middle of the airport, and while I was trying to not attract much attention, I felt many worried eyes towards me, but not a single employee came to help or ask if I was okay. This was the low during my diverted flight experience.
After a kind family stayed next to me to make sure I was okay, and once I calmed a little bit down, a mother and her daughter came up to me and said that they lived in the area, and that if I wanted to, they can drive me to the hotel. They both had such a warm energy and I just wanted to lay in a bed at this point as it was already 11pm. I took up their offer and they drove me to the The Westin Reston Heights Hotel. Thank you to Carolina and her mother for their kindness, warmth and helping a person in need. Their actions really warmed my heart and made me grateful and remember how important kindness is, and how it is contagious, but can be forgotten so easily. One kind act can make such a big difference.
I got to the hotel at around 11:20pm and while I checked in and I showed them the hotel voucher, the front desk attendant immediately said “We always tell United we don’t have a shuttle but they don’t listen, and send you guys to us”. It seems like this is something that this hotel often gets complains about this. I knocked out the moment I laid down on the bed, setting my alarm for 7am so I can get breakfast with the meal voucher and get to the airport 3 hours before my flight at 12:30pm.
I was supposed to have dinner with some of my friends on the 26th in Tokyo, so I was quite sad that I couldn’t make it since I was so excited to see them again. I did get a travel voucher from United Airlines for my troubles during my diverted flight experience. If you don’t wan’t to complain to the airlines directly, you can use Airhelp, they help passengers receive up to $600 in compensation for delayed or canceled flights. Follow my Travel Chronicles: Summer 2023 stories as I post my daily documentation of my 53 days on the road! As a 24-year-old Asian Solo traveler, I hope that this can inspire others who want to do something similar!