Flight: US 734 (US Airways)
Route: PHL (Philadelphia PA, United States) to MAN (Manchester, England)
Aircraft: Boeing 757-200WL
At the outset, I should like to express my distaste at the current trend by US carriers in using Boeing 757s on transatlantic flights. My reasons for this stem from no aversion to the aircraft itself; rather, I simply question the suitability of the relatively small airplane on a long route. My main issues are passenger comfort and no seat back TVs; also, transatlantic flights aren't exactly cheap these days, and airlines are providing a significantly inferior product for no reduction in cost to the consumer.
I am a Star Alliance member and frequently use US Airways via Philadelphia to vacation in Las Vegas when the direct bmi flight is sold out or much more expensive. My outbound US Airways flight in August was on one of its A330s: the service aboard is no bmi, but the staff was genuinely cheerful, the food fine, and the varied video entertainment engaging. The aircraft also looked recently refurbished, as well as being comfortable, spacious, clean and quiet.
Photo © Kenneth C. Iwelumo
Photo © Joe Osciak
US Airways is the latest in a number of US carriers to drop the operation of wide-bodied aircraft in favour of the 757 on its transatlantic services to Manchester. It isn't only me who thinks this deserves criticism. As I was settling into my seat a good half hour prior to scheduled departure, a passenger in front commented on the airplane's smallness; another asked a fellow passenger if this indeed was a flight to Manchester, England and not Manchester, New Hampshire. Confident passengers, there.
Philadelphia had very rainy weather as we pushed back at our scheduled time of 8:35 PM. We steadily made our way to runway 27L. I marvelled at the size of the newly fitted winglets bobbing as we rode the bumps of the taxiways. We shot into the black stormy sky, and I observed keenly the brief glimpses of the city lights outside the window between the bumpy clouds.
Within a minute or so, we levelled and thrust was reduced to maintain a lower speed below 10,000 feet. I assumed this was because of traffic in the Philly area. Except ten minutes later, we were still at a very low altitude with flaps still in their take-off configuration. Strange, I thought. So it came as no great surprise when the first officer announced we had to return to Philadelphia due to “a problem with one of the flight controls.”
I deduced from this that the flaps were not able to retract. We were to orbit for about thirty minutes over the Atlantic Seaboard and presumably jettison fuel into the ocean. There would be emergency services standing by upon landing, but the first officer calmly assured us this was a mandatory precautionary measure in this type of instance. He added the landing would be faster than normal and we would be using the entire length of the airport's left runway.
My fellow passengers seemed, at least outwardly, surprisingly calm and unconcerned. Perhaps this was because the pilot's voice was very faint over the general noisiness of the 757's engines and air conditioning vents.
As we were vectored onto a bouncy final approach, the cabin crew took their seats. Runway 27L is the longest at PHL, over 10,000 feet in length, so it made sense we were using this. Outside the fast moving ground and stormy weather looked like something from National Geographic's Air Crash Investigation.
As we cleared the airport's perimeter, still with flaps in their take-off configuration, I was initially alarmed to see the smaller runway 26 hundreds of feet below. I was now expecting an aborted approach; however, I had forgotten how staggered Philadelphia's runways are. We clearly landed at a higher speed, but it was surprisingly gentle. Reverse thrust was engaged in an instant and thankfully we came to a stop a comfortable distance from the end of the runway. Panic over. Countless fire engines, ambulance and police vehicles escorted us back to our gate. Major kudos must go to the pilot for his excellent landing in such compromised conditions.
As we waited on the airplane to receive further news, I could see mechanics shining a torch at the flaps of the right wing. I cannot confirm flaps were the problem, but it's the conclusion I have arrived at. We were then told to deplane.
Back inside the terminal, we were told we were to receive an upsizing of aircraft to a Boeing 767-200. We were offered free drinks and snacks while the plane was brought from the hangar and prepared for its unforeseen flight. The entire flight crew would be the same. I pitied the pilots who had to start over. At this point I will say that US Airways handled the drama admirably, and were very keen to get us on our way with as little a delay as was feasible.
So we eventually took to the still boisterous sky close to 1 AM. This time, the flight was thankfully uneventful. We landed on Manchester's runway 23R at 12:05 PM local time, just over three hours late, which is quite impressive given the circumstances. Although the 767 is a more suitable aircraft for a lengthy flight, the only video entertainment was one movie. Nothing else. I can't really sleep on planes, so it's a good job I had my iPod with me.
Your thoughts on this trip report are appreciated. I do not mean parts of the above to sound like an anti-Boeing 757 rant; after all, this incident proves it is not crippled by a flight control failure. But I stand by my remarks on the use of 757s on transatlantic flights. I accept it may well be more conducive to an airline's financial health over operating an A330/A340 or 767/777 on its existing routes, but it still represents a great compromise from a passenger viewpoint.
Years ago I travelled transatlantic on a 757. Its single-aisle layout means aisles are routinely blocked; one cannot take a detour down the neighbouring aisle. Surely it is not a good time for the cabin crew either. Furthermore, Manchester Airport is the largest airport outside London in the United Kingdom; one might accept a 757 at a smaller airport for the convenience of travelling from their home city. Another issue is fuel: there have been many reports of 757s running low on fuel while servicing flights between the US and Europe; abnormally strong headwinds or dense traffic patterns surely jeopardize destination arrivals with ample fuel supplies.
I will finish by once again praising US Airways' reaction to this incident. I had complete confidence in the airline's approach to passenger safety.