Broken Toilet Maroons Passengers for Two Days

San Francisco to Shanghai Flight Diverts to Anchorage

What was supposed to be a routine 13 hour flight between United’s San Francisco Hub (SFO) to Shanghai, China (PVG), turned into a two day fiasco.

On Sunday, March 18th, 262 passengers boarded United Airlines flight 857, a nonstop to Shanghai Pudong Intl (PVG).

United Airlines 857, a Boeing 777-200, was en-route to Shanghai at 32,000 feet and within 100 miles of Anchorage when the flight crew made the unexpected diversion to Anchorage International Airport (ANC).  The diversion was the result of several lavatories being inoperative.

Upon arrival in Anchorage passengers were held on the tarmac for some time prior to pulling into a gate.  Once the passengers entered the terminal, it was reported to be chaotic, with minimal ground staff on-hand to provide hotel and food vouchers.

Some passengers left the airport on their own and paid for hotel and food out of pocket.  However, most queued for nearly two hours to receive their vouchers.  One report indicated many of the passengers were returning to China and had difficulty checking in to their hotel, as they did not have credit cards.

In the end, passengers made it to hotels and a replacement Boeing 777-200 was flown in to continue the journey to Shanghai Pudong Intl (PVG).  The following day, March 19th, passengers were shuttled back to the airport to board the new aircraft, another Boeing 777-200.

Once on board the passengers encountered another wait on the tarmac, but this time the aircraft shut down.  No power, no lights, or functional lavatories for that matter.  The flight was eventually delayed to the next day because of mechanical problems.

Passengers once again were provided hotels for yet another night in Anchorage.

United flew another Boeing 777-200 up-to Anchorage and the third time was a charm.  The flight finally departed Anchorage on March 20th and arrived safely at Shanghai Pudong Intl (PVG) the next morning on March 21st.

Thankfully events like this are rare, but it’s unfortunate the 262 passengers didn’t have an opportunity to go sight-seeing during their “Alaskan Adventure”.

A United spokesman confirmed the series of events related to United 857 and stated United would compensate the passengers with a refund of their airfare.


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5 Responses

I was on UA857 on March 18th. It was the singular, worst flying experience I’ve ever had.

United Airlines failed on so many levels – shockingly poor crisis management, lack of information, insufficient dissemination of information, and of course, the mechanical failures.

The flight in SFO didn’t start well. Due to the fubar’ed UA-CO merger, checkin took 2+ hours for many folks. United agents said the systems were difficult to use due to the merger.

After the mechanical failures began, announcements were extremely rare, and in the terminal, often made to the 10 out 262 passengers who happened to be in front of the United representative. Not to mention, only in English (about half the passengers were Chinese).

On the night of the 18th in Anchorage, after we got in the terminal, a United agent (through a passenger with a loud voice) announced that we’d get hotel vouchers and there would be a flight the next day. 5 minutes later, everyone starting walking towards the south terminal (we were in the north terminal). After walking almost the entire length of the airport, another United agent told us all to turn around and walk back. We were in line for two hours to hotel vouchers and were told to take shuttles back to the airport the next morning at 10am for a 1pm departure.

When we returned to the airport on the 19th, no one from United was there until 10:30am. Then they announced the flight was delayed until 3:15pm. So basically we were stuck in the airport waiting for 5 hours. I had to ask 3-4 people to find out which gate we were leaving from (nothing on the airport monitors, another “quiet” announcement). They took us through a “special” line in security, checking us off against a manifest that was neither sorted by name nor seat number. That took a *long* time. Then, after getting the gate, we found out we could get lunch vouchers. Guess what? They had to check us off against the same unsorted manifest. Yet another long line.

After boarding the plane before 3pm, we sat on the tarmac for at least an hour. Then we were informed that we were waiting for a single sheet of paper that authorized the plane to leave the country “since the airline still operates on paper.” Then we sat on the plane for another 2 hours before they told us there were problems with the cooling for the electronics, and they needed to “reboot” the plane. Fortunately they took us back to the gate and gave us the option of returning to the terminal. The captain announced it would be another hour before they figured anything out. After an hour+, the captain announced it still wasn’t fixed, and they would try for another one hour and fifteen minutes and give a go or no go. After that time expired, a passenger starting running down the aisle to grab his luggage. He said he’d seen a mechanic exiting the cockpit giving a thumbs down sign to the crew, and he was running to get in line in the terminal.

After leaving the plane, again the United representative told a couple people what to do (not everyone): “go outside of security and someone at the United desk will help you.” A lady finally started dressing him down (most folks were frequent flyers and knew we were screwed, or were only Chinese speakers and couldn’t complain) and you could smell his fear. Guess what? When we followed instructions, no one was at the United desk for half an hour (until the same representative showed up!). He split folks into queues for hotel vouchers by service class, and a fourth line for folks who wanted to return to SFO. I was in the latter. It took one hour for the *first* person in my line to have someone help him. In the interim, there were several United agents helping folks checking in for other flights. One agent specifically, repeatedly, and rudely told us that “if you’re on the Shanghai flight, I’m not helping you.” A couple hours of waiting passed, and someone asked what was f*cking going on. Then he got “help” – 3 female agents virtually jumped all over him declaring there was “no call for that language.” Then they went back to helping other folks, not us. I was the sixth person in line of 30+. It took two and a half hours before I was helped. At this point it was midnight, and I had 30 minutes to go to the Alaska desk, get a ticket, get through security and catch a 12:30am departure flight to Seattle. None of the people in line behind me were going anywhere that night.

Oh, why Alaska not United? Because the United flight was delayed – the inbound plane was delayed (hadn’t even left Seattle) because it was hit by lightning from Houston to Seattle and they wanted to check the plane out. !!!

Multiple times, United agents said things were out of their hands, we had to call the 800 number for any help. Guess what, with the fubar’ed UA-CO merger, the wait on the phone line was 40+ minutes.

The United agents on the ground, while mostly well-intentioned, were incompetent.

The United crew was very pleasant and told us they’d never seen anything like it before.

The multiple million milers and Global Services passengers all said they’d never seen anything like it before.

United was extremely fortunate they didn’t have a riot on their hands given their incompetence and the general frustration level.

Did United “try their very best” on this flight? No.


Thank you for sharing your account with UA 857.

I thought I had some bad trips, but this takes the cake. It sounds like they just didn’t know what to do in Anchorage with that many people and likely lacked decision making authority from above. The disorganization reminds me of the US Airways / America West merger.

Presume you pulled the Trip in Vain card and had United FIM you to Alaska?


Thanks for providing the first hand experience. In all my years of traveling, I’ve dealt with some long delays, but nothing as fubar’ed as what you encountered because it was somewhat organized. It was also a major station (AMS) where they had proper staff in-place to handle passengers. The only problems were pax who were allowed to transit, but required a visa to enter the country. Last minute, one-time visa’s were issued for most of those passengers. A bit of information goes a long ways.

The one near riot I encountered was weather related with a blizzard closing the east coast airports. BA pax who had been sleeping in JFK for a couple days stormed aboard the first flight to LHR once boarding opened and refused to leave, until the port authority police got involved. No arrests, but a lot of noise.

Out of curiousity (not sure it matters at this point), but did they ever state the exact reason for the 2nd cancellation, or did it come down to the e-bays not cooling? I heard a rumor the APU failed which was followed by a series of problems in an e-bay, but will leave it at that .. a rumor.

Nothing more specific than that the cooling for the electronics weren’t working.

Lots of rumors were flying around.

Yup – FIM’ed back to SFO through SEA. Ticket refunded, that’s it.

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