Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


We’ve all been on bumpy flights. And, most frequent fliers have at least one flight memory of a trip that went beyond bumpy.

But short of anything involving an actual emergency landing, this friend’s Virgin America story is one of the scariest I’ve heard.

I’ll let her tell it:

Friday, August 30, 2013, my husband and I took a morning Virgin American flight from San Jose to LAX. I spoke to the pilot who was chatting with passengers as we boarded. He assured us a smooth flight as he had just flown up from LAX. He said it was clear and easy, and that we would just “zip down the coast.”

While in our final descent, at about 10,000 ft., we suddenly banked sharply right. Then the plane began rolling violently back and forth. The wings of the plane, visible from our row, rolled extremely rapidly back and forth at extreme angles for several minutes. My husband looked at me as if to say, “That’s it.” We, as well as other passengers, thought we were going to crash. The pilot said nothing during the incident nor immediately after he landed the plane. It was not until shortly before the doors opened to let passengers deplane that the pilot informed us that we had encountered wake turbulence caused by a “heavy” jet that had landed ahead of us.

Many passengers were in shock and several were in tears.”

(A “heavy,” for those who don’t know, is an aircraft capable of takeoff weights of 300,000 pounds or more, like a 747 or 777.)

In any case, nothing was said by the gate agent meeting the plane, either. The traveler and her husband decided to cancel their return flight and drive back to San Jose. She also canceled an upcoming trip to Florida because she doesn’t want to get back in a plane anytime soon.

Afterwards, my friend reached out to Virgin America to tell them about the incident, first on Facebook, including that she had canceled her return and future flights.

Their response, “Thanks for reaching out to us and sharing your concerns. We have logged your feedback and passed it on to management for review. Unfortunately, turbulence is something we’re unable to control; however, our pilots do their best to ensure a smooth ride for all guests. Safety is our number 1 priority and we take your feedback very seriously. We hope you have a stress free and relaxing return flight.”

Did they actually READ the message?

Next, they called guest relations, where a woman looked up the flight on the computer and said the incident was reported as caused by weather. The agent did take her email address and said they would be back in touch if they found anything.

It is possible someone from Virgin America may get back to her with a refund, or partial refund, but no one offered that. And, since she booked the flights direct, there’s no way for me as an agent to get her money back.

But leaving the money aside, “wake turbulence” is the turbulence behind a plane as it passes, the airborne equivalent of a boat’s wake on water. It’s been responsible for a number of crashes and incidents. It is one reason aircraft are carefully spaced, especially upon takeoff and landing.

It’s possible the pilot was mistaken, but she and her husband said he sounded pretty certain of the cause. Plus, it was a crystal clear summer day, even in Los Angeles. Personally, I’m also a bit surprised someone from Virgin didn’t meet the plane and offer assistance.

The traveler’s concern now, which seems justifiable, is less a refund than whether or not the airline accurately reported what happened. If it was an unfortunate freak weather thing, one would hope other airlines were warned. And, if it was “wake turbulence,” as the pilot said, clearly either someone made a mistake or the allowed separation distances aren’t far enough. This means the incident should be reviewed.

(She is contacting the DOT and FAA, so there may be a follow-up post based on their response.)

The good news — as scary as the incident was, there did not appear to be any injuries. However, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. How often does this sort of thing happen? And, is there any chance the traveling public would actually know?