Continental Flight 20: diary of a day-long odyssey

Sometimes when things start to go wrong on an airplane, they keep going wrong. At least that's what 430 passengers on Continental Airlines Flight 20 found Sunday when they tried to get from Los Angeles to Newark, N.J. The following is a brief diary of how the 4-hour flight was delayed 12 hours.

8:25 Sunday morning, Pacific time: Continental Flight 20, a Boeing 747, is filled almost to capacity, scheduled to arrive in Newark at 4:30 p.m., Eastern time.

9:40: Late from the gate, the flight begins its takeoff. Halfway down the runway, the pilot aborts the liftoff and glides back down the runway. He announces that a warning light on a gauge has gone off and the plane will return to the gate. ``It will take only a few minutes to replace the gauge,'' the pilot promises.

11:40: The new gauge is in place and this time the plane lifts off.

12:40 p.m.: Somewhere near Denver, the pilot announces that the plane has once more developed mechanical problems, related to low oil pressure in the No. 3 engine. He informs the passengers the plane is returning to Los Angeles, since ``Denver has weather problems.'' The flight returns with three engines.

2:00: Continental tells the arriving passengers it has another 747 coming in at 4 p.m. from Hawaii and will schedule a 6 p.m. departure to Newark. In a professional manner, the ground crew shuffles the flights of the passengers and gives everyone a $100 travel certificate for use on a later Continental flight. This alone costs Continental $43,000.

A TV crew arrives and discovers that some passengers have been trying to leave since Saturday night, when Continental canceled its late-night flight at 1:30 a.m. because of mechanical problems.

6:00: the new flight begins loading.

6:15: the flight attendants have gone over the limit on their working hours. They elect to leave the flight, which now has no attendants. The passengers take over the plane, smoking in the aisles and raiding the liquor supplies. A lawyer is amazed that ``they would leave a $25 million asset unattended.'' One passenger begins a ``pool,'' collecting $1 from passengers who try to guess when the flight will actually take off.

7:00: A new ground supervisor pleads with the passengers to be patient. She is rescheduling a crew of 14 that was supposed to go to Hawaii for the Newark flight. ``They are only five minutes away,'' she says. The old crew is going to travel as passengers, and some of them are concerned they will be fired.

8:12: Wheels are up as flight 20 makes a third try for Newark. Four passengers win $19 each on the pool. ``With a little luck we'll be in Newark in 4 hours,'' the captain says.

3:46 Monday morning, Eastern time: Flight 20 arrives in Newark, nearly 12 hours late.

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