Caring For Unexpected Guests

At 8:45pm on Friday, April 26, the pilot of WestJet Airlines Flight 8975 was high above North Carolina headed to Toronto from Cancun. He declared a medical emergency and requested to land at the nearest airport, which happened to be RDU.  The story of what happened on the ground is a great example of the teamwork and customer service our team strives for each day at RDU.

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Once on the ground, as the medical situation was being addressed, a flight attendant asked Police Officer Chris Day where they were. At the same time, it became apparent that the flight crew was going to time out, meaning that they had reached the maximum number of on-the-job hours allowed for safety each day.  Our staff quickly shifted focus from the medical situation, which was being addressed, to caring for the about 170 passengers aboard the flight.

Keep in mind that the flight was flying from Mexico to Canada and these passengers didn’t expect to land on U.S. soil. For that reason, many wouldn’t have had proper documentation to enter the U.S.  And, because they couldn’t be admitted into the U.S., our staff had to find a creative way to care for them without letting them onto the concourse.

Quickly, a plan was formed. In partnership with representatives from the U.S. Customs and Protection, the passengers were allowed to enter the customs facility to wait for a new flight and crew from Toronto, to carry them home. The facility had restrooms and plenty of space, but no seating or food, and our terminal restaurants had all closed for the evening.

Staff from American Airlines joined RDU Operations Officers Don Atkinson and Sid Bragg and Fire Rescue Personnel Dustin King and Will Patterson in helping WestJet crew empty the plane of all food and non-alcoholic beverages on board and with the gathering of other snacks and supplies. A makeshift snack center was set up on the counters usually reserved for filling out immigration paperwork. The USO brought in additional food as well as pizza.

Port Director Matt Ragsdale brought out the microwave from the customs officers’ breakroom to help prepare food. He also searched the facility for power strips to help passengers charge their phones. Our support firm, G-2 brought in as many wheelchairs as could be rounded up throughout Terminal 2 to provide seating for as many as possible.

One of the most extraordinary acts of service involved Police Officer Myra Parrish. A mom herself, Myra noticed that there were many babies and small children on the flight. She quickly left the airport and with her own funds, purchased diapers and milk for the parents unable to leave the customs facility.

Since WestJet doesn’t regularly serve RDU, American Airlines filled the gap and took care of switching luggage from the first plane to the second plane as well as servicing and preparing the aircraft for flight. And, throughout the six hour layover, members of RDU’s Operations, Law Enforcement and Fire Rescue departments stayed with the passenger, helping them to pass the time and keeping them informed of arrangements to get them home.

After the flight departed at 2 a.m. with many exhausted smiles and hugs, everyone on the RDU team stayed for some time to clean up and re-set the customs facility for the next days’ flights. Many of our colleagues will say that they were just doing their jobs. But what they were doing was graciously demonstrating the true meaning of unparalleled customer service on a night when unexpected guests arrived.