Hawaiian Airlines Flight Diverted in ‘Terrifying’ Ordeal for Visiting Family

February 18, 2020, 3:04 PM HST (Updated February 18, 2020, 5:57 PM)
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A Kansas City family on vacation in Hawai‘i was just settling into an interisland flight last week before sudden mechanical issues spurred on what they described as some of the most terrifying moments of their lives.

Vicki Bichel and her daughters, Ashley Bichel and Renee Baylard, boarded Hawaiian Airlines Flight 249 at Kahului Airport bound for Kaua‘i on Friday, Feb. 14. The plane took off at 2:18 p.m. but never reached its intended destination.

Issues on the Boeing 717, carrying 118 passengers and five crew members, began early on. Sitting in the back row, the women heard a loud clunk from behind them that didn’t sound normal, and which prompted questions from passengers as to the problem.

Soon after, they caught the scent of “something burning” in their noses, which Vicki said was promptly followed by a loss of cabin pressure and the activation of the aircraft’s emergency oxygen system.

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“It was disbelief,” Vicki said. “We asked the stewardess if the plane was on fire. She said yes.”

Flight attendants moved quickly up and down the aisles, somewhere between a fast walk and a run, Vicki continued.

She added that a short time later, the same attendant who told her the plane was on fire recanted that statement, saying she wasn’t sure if there was a fire or not. However, fire trucks were on the tarmac to meet the aircraft upon its landing on O‘ahu.

Hawaiian Airlines said in an email to Big Island Now Tuesday that approximately 45 minutes into the flight, the crew detected a possible issue with the system that monitors and controls cabin pressurization and oxygen masks were deployed.

“First responders met the plane at the gate as a precaution,” the company said.

Masks and seatbelts on, the passengers were told the flight was being diverted to Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu but were not given precise information on what the problem was with the aircraft.

“We couldn’t hear anything,” Ashley said. “They weren’t telling us anything.”

The entire incident, from the first unnerving development to landing safely at HNL at 3:15 p.m., lasted no more than 30 minutes by their estimations. But the women said it seemed like an eternity.

“You’re in such total shock,” Vicki said. “You wonder if this is it.”

Honolulu fire truck. Wikipedia photo

Shock and disbelief were also the words the family used to describe most of the other passengers on the plane. Moderate panic was the distinct vibe they felt from flight attendants.

“The stewardesses were remarkable,” Vicki said. “But you could tell they were panicked.”

Baylard, Vicki’s other daughter, said she was preparing herself for the worst.

“I have three young children at home, and I texted my husband from the plane because I thought I might die,” she said. “You can’t go anywhere. There’s no escape.”

When the plane touched down, a sense of relief followed by impatience and anger gripped the Kansas City family.

“(Hawaiian Airlines officials) didn’t say they were sorry, they didn’t explain what was happening,” Vicki said. “There was no one from the airline there to check if people were okay, or to help.”

A short while later, a female representative of the airline met the passengers in the terminal, directing them to another Hawaiian Airlines gate where they boarded a 4:20 p.m. flight bound for Kaua‘i.

Oxygen masks deployed after issues with Hawaiian Airlines Flight 249 from Maui to Kauai forced the plane to divert to Honolulu on Friday, Feb. 14, 2020. Photo courtesy of Renee Baylard

The mood was somber in the gate’s lobby, Vicki continued, with a handful of children and older folks in tears from the ordeal while the rest of the crowd sat more or less in quiet contemplation, processing their shared experience.

The pilot of the next plane greeted passengers with an apology for the incident, adding that he didn’t know what happened on Flight 249. The second aircraft ultimately landed on Kaua‘i at 5:02 p.m., exactly two hours after the flight’s initial ETA.

But the Bichel family said those hours changed their lives.

“We have been emotionally messed up,” Vicki said. “Everybody is worried about getting on the plane to go home. It has ruined our vacation.”

The family was booked on a Hawaiian Airlines flight back across the Pacific to the mainland on Feb. 22. They have since canceled those reservations.

“We sincerely apologize to our passengers for the inconvenience,” Hawaiian Airlines wrote in the email. “The aircraft, which had no prior history affecting this system, underwent a full inspection and was released back into service on Sunday, Feb. 16.”

Max Dible
Max Dible is the News Director for both Big Island Now and Kauai Now. He also serves as News Director for Pacific Media Group's Hawai‘i Island family of radio stations. He formerly worked as a community reporter for West Hawai‘i Today in Kailua-Kona from 2016 to 2019. Before that, he was a sports editor, sports reporter, and radio talk show personality covering college athletics in Iowa. He's won several regional and national journalism awards, at both the collegiate and professional levels, for breaking news, long-form feature writing, and his work as a sports columnist.

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