United Flight Turns Back Mid-Journey Because the Plane Was 'Too Big'
Earlier this month, a United Airlines flight between Chicago O'Hare and Chattanooga, Tennessee was forced to return back to Chicago O'Hare as it neared the Indiana-Kentucky border. According to an article published by USA Today, a passenger on board the flight said that the pilot told passengers, "We're going to turn and go back to O'Hare" as the aircraft was "too large." That passenger, Vince Fallon, who earlier in the day originated out of Omaha, Nebraska, described the experience as "very strange."
United Airlines Flight 5277 was operated by regional carrier Skywest. Skywest operates quite a few flights for United's regional carrier, United Express, utilizing Embraer EMB-175s and Bombardier CRJ-200s. Flight 5277 from Chicago (ORD) to Chattanooga (CHA) was originally supposed to be operated by a 50-seater Bombardier CRJ-200, a regular visitor to Chattanooga. However, Flight 5277 underwent an equipment swap just hours before the flight was scheduled to depart. Fallon reported that the flight initially avoided delay with an Embraer EMB-175 having been quickly assigned to the route to replace the original aircraft. The EMB-175 (or simply E175) is quite the upgrade over the CRJ-200 with a configuration that can accommodate up to 76 passengers compared to the CRJ-200's 50.
The bizarre incident occurred on Oct. 16, when the United Express flight departed ORD at 2:44pm. While the scheduled departure time was 2:13pm, the half-hour delay was not related to the equipment swap. With the flight time between Chicago and Chattanooga averaging an hour and eleven minutes, the flight was technically on time — possibly even arriving five minutes ahead of schedule. Unfortunately for passengers aboard United Express 5277, the flight deck made an unexpected announcement about a half-hour into the flight. Their new aircraft was simply too large for Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport, according to the flight deck.
Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport's longest runway is 7,400 feet, which is more than sufficient to land even a fully loaded Embraer E175. For landing, the Embraer E175 requires a minimum runway length of approximately just 4,130 feet. Additionally, Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport features taxiways that could potentially accommodate aircraft as large as the Boeing 757, more than twice the size of an Embraer E175. Yet, passengers were initially told the aircraft was simply too large for the airfield. Passengers wouldn't have to look very far to discover that this is not true, as Delta Air Lines regularly operates a McDonnell-Douglass MD-88 on the airline's Atlanta to Chattanooga flights.
The reality, a Skywest spokesperson would confirm in a statement to USA Today, is that oversight on United Express and Skywest's part led to the diversion. United Airlines did not have the correct equipment in place at Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport to cater to the Embraer E175 upon arrival. The Embraer E175 might have looked like the perfect substitute for the short regional flight as it could easily land, taxi and takeoff at the airport. The E175 would also ensure none of the passengers booked on the flight would have to be bumped to another flight due to capacity restraints. However, United and Skywest did not take into consideration equipment on the ground.
Upon returning back to Chicago O'Hare, Fallon noted that United provided passengers with free snacks and soft drinks while they waited for a replacement aircraft. The replacement aircraft, a Bombardier CRJ-200, departed from Chicago a little after 6pm local time and arrived in Chattanooga around 8:30pm, more than three hours after scheduled arrival time.
Passengers on board the flight reportedly received a refund for the Chicago-Chattanooga leg of their itineraries as well as a $300 travel voucher. Fallon noted that he has experienced far worse delays due to weather and would use his voucher to visit family in Boston.