Iwo Jima 70th Anniversary United Charter Flight

This one’s for the aviation geeks. The rest of us can move on, well, I can’t, I’m writing it. It was great fun to get to Iwo Jima and the charter was an experience in itself.

United handled the charter out of Guam, bringing in three 737s from its Japan and Micronesia runs. Previous commemorations had only had one plane, and the logistics capacity for the day were stressed by three full planes.

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Check-in was the day prior at the host hotel, Outrigger Guam. United representatives had already prepared all the boarding passes. Volunteers and Young Marines handled crowd control and distribution of pre-completed Japan immigration form. The chokepoint was United and I didn’t understand why. It took over 2 hours of a line snaking through the hotel. When I got the front, I was directed to the last name A-D because of clogging in the middle. The dour United rep handled my passport to one of her assistants who disappeared and several minutes sauntered back over. She asked about my passport andboarding pass. He looked totally surprised. Plum slipped his mind. Now I understood the two-hour wait.

Prior to arrival it was made clear no miles would be awarded for the flight and I never saw an e-ticket or had a chance to provide my MileagePlus number. Others, I think who booked with other tour companies, had gotten their numbers which helped for Global Entry. On my plane, the third which had no veterans, elites got upgrades. I was not going to rock the boat the entire weekend, though at departure I had my number added at the gate just in case the flights show up in my account history for the fun of seeing it there.

The original departures were for 7, 7:20 and 7:40, however they moved those up to 6, 6:25 and 6:55. Guam security was a mess. Oddly, there was no one from United or the tour helping direct traffic. When I showed up a number of vets were in the regular, long line. The Young Marines showed up with one vet group and brought everyone on the tour to the priority lane. I realize airline crews have a job to do, though it amazes me how they will cut in front of anyone without batting an eye. While these aged vets stood in line, multiple crews from United, Delta and Philippine Airlines cut in front of them. Then TSA made a real hash of it. I try not to take pot shots at TSA. This is richly deserved. They did not care a jot about the vets or their shrapnel-filled bodies, subjecting nearly all to multiple screenings and pat downs. Not a complaint from a vet, plenty from the rest of us.

The departure gates were handled much better. 3 gates at the end of the terminal. Japanese authorities were doing passport collection and inside United had muffins and water. All three flights boarded close to on time. Only mine, the third, got out slightly late to load more supplies for the day.

An in-flight meal was provided to all, same meal for front and back cabins. Also a snack bag for lunch that appeared to have been looted from a Delta Sky Club. Letters from Iwo Jima played on the monitors.

The captain provided lots of info and did two circles of the island so that both sides could see the full sweep, including wreckage on the far north shore that we did not have land access. Too bad my row 11 had no window and I had to peak through the one forward.

Iwo Jima Airport has one set of boarding stairs so we waited for the second plane to unload before we got our chance. On the tarmac, I was witness to pride by a United employee, imagine that! “We are United flight attendants. We are so proud to see our planes here.”

After a full day of activity we headed back to the airport. The original scheduled departures had, in advance been moved up 2 hours, from 2:45, 3:05 and 3:25 to 12:45, 1:05 and 1:25. At the commemoration ceremony passed noon it was clear the schedules would not hold. Everyone was back at the airport and the first flight, with the most vets, boarded about 2:00. We are all processed through makeshift security and passports returned in the hangar. Then the waiting started.

The military planes carrying the Secretary of the Navy and the Marine Commandant all flew out. No movement of the first plane. We heard conflicting reports from United staff. There seemed to be some issue with the data link to United operations in Chicago and there was also some mismatch of weight loads. Later, our captain had gone mostly silent and blamed it on air traffic control. Regardless, the first plane sat over two hours with everyone on board. Past the two-hour mark the second plane finished boarding and was off. We boarded the third.

In the next hour we sat on board and plane one headed to the runway, only to return half an hour later. From what I overheard and suspected, the United crew had timed out and there was no backup crew. There was talk of flying in new crews from Guam. It was almost comical as the United Charters ground crew tried to sort it out because they were supposed to be on our plane, so every time they boarded and the stairs were pulled away by Marines, when something new happened with plane one, the Marines rolled the stairs back and off went the United staff, who worked incredibly hard that day. Our crew was close to timing out. The last I overheard we got a running go, something about a FAA emergency was approved to get these vets out, and we are quickly up in the air followed by plane one. A long day for those tough vets.

On arrival United had a large spread to welcome to weary travelers.

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