Video: Smelly flight

updated 6/21/2007 12:42:41 PM ET 2007-06-21T16:42:41

Continental Airlines Inc. is apologizing to its customers for "poor conditions" aboard a trans-Atlantic flight where one passenger described sewage spilling down the aisle from a lavatory.

"I've never felt so offended in all my life," passenger Collin Brock of Washington state told Seattle's KING-TV. "I felt like I had been physically abused and neglected. I was forced to sit next to human excrement for seven hours."

Continental spokesman Dave Messing on Thursday confirmed that there had been a problem with the plane's lavatory during the flight.

Flight 71, with 168 passengers on board, had taken off June 13 from Amsterdam bound for Newark, N.J., but made an overnight stop in Shannon, Ireland, to fix the lavatory problem, Messing said.

Messing didn't say who worked on the plane, but everything appeared to have been fixed before it took off again for Newark the next day, renamed Flight 1970. However, "the problem developed again," he said.

After the plane landed in Newark, airline employees determined someone blocked a waste line by flushing latex gloves down the toilet — despite signs that warn not to discard foreign objects into the system, Messing said.

"We deeply regret the serious inconvenience to our customers and are apologizing to them and compensating them for the poor conditions on the flight as well as the diversion and delay," he wrote in a statement from the Houston-based carrier.

Continental is compensating passengers with travel vouchers, Messing said. He declined to say how much the vouchers were worth.

Brock told KING-TV he was offered a $500 voucher. He said he wasn't sure he would ever use it.

The incident came to light as Continental was celebrating being ranked first among traditional network airlines in customer satisfaction by market-research firm J.D. Power and Associates. Chairman and Chief Executive Lawrence W. Kellner had said Continental offered "the best product in the industry."

It followed other examples of letdowns in the airline industry, including JetBlue Airways Corp.'s stranding of passengers for up to 10 hours on a snowy New York runway in February.

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Last week's plumbing problems aboard the Continental flight appeared unlikely to rival JetBlue's meltdown, which resulted in hundreds of flight cancelations that affected at least 100,000 passengers.

Airline experts said lavatory pipes are small in diameter and prone to problems. High pressure is used to push waste through, but lines can clog easily, causing sewage to back up.

"It happens," said Robert Mann, an airline consultant in Port Washington, N.J.

Mann worked for now-defunct Tower Air in the 1990s when it had problems with overflowing toilets in the second deck of Boeing 747s. As he described it, "blue water" would leak through ceiling panels of the lower deck and rain on passengers below.

"You do your best to remedy the problem," he said. "When it doesn't work, you write a lengthy letter to customers explaining exactly what happened. And you write a short letter to the ground company that serviced the aircraft, and that one says, 'You're fired.'"

James Lukaszewski, a public relations executive who teaches classes in crisis communications for peers, said the fouled flight had already become water cooler talk Thursday.

When an embarrassing incident happens, Lukaszewski said, companies need to be open with victims and the media and commit to making sure it doesn't happen again. He said Continental was right to offer vouchers for free travel.

"In this case, one of the few things they can do is let people fly again," he said, "on a plane with a potty that works."

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