I scanned the flight prices on Google Flights and stopped, suddenly overcome with the sense that this was going to happen. I had wanted to visit New Zealand for a while and I was getting restless again. I had the money, I found a cheap ticket, and I had the PTO at work, so I bought the tickets—one for me and one for my wife. It was an expensive impulse, but sometimes the need to travel is worth the price of an airline ticket to the other side of the world.
My wife and I enjoy traveling, and we wanted to visit New Zealand because of its natural beauty, diverse countryside, and safe environment. We scheduled ourselves to fly out Wednesday evening and (because of crossing the International Date Line) arrive Friday morning.
Is there a doctor on the plane?
I sat in the seat of the Boeing 787 and dozed off. “If there is a doctor on the plane, please let a flight attendant know. We are in need of a doctor.” It was the second time the call for a doctor over the intercom woke me from my sleep. It is not a good sign when the intercom calls for a doctor on any flight, let alone a flight between Los Angeles, California, and Auckland, New Zealand.
I fell back asleep, but was roused again, this time by the pilot’s voice. “I’m sorry to tell you this, folks,” said the pilot, “but we are going to have to divert the plane to Tahiti because of a medical emergency on the plane. We feel like we should be able to land, refuel, and take off pretty quickly, though.” He went on to explain that in order to reduce the weight of the aircraft enough to be able to safely land on the Tahitian runway, they had to dump fuel while making the descent. I looked out the window and could see a mist of brown liquid spraying from the wing.
FAA regulations and mechanical challenges
Few things go according to plan when we travel, but we often cling to our plans like they are our money. Once we have laid plans, it is very frustrating to see them foiled by events that we see as interfering. Solomon says in Proverbs 19:21. “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails” (NIV).
The flight crew intended to land, unload the sick passenger to a waiting ambulance, refuel, and take off before they ran out of hours. The Federal Aviation Administration enforces strict regulations for the amount of hours an individual can work on an airplane. The crew were close to their limit, but as long as they took off quickly, they could stay within regulations.
We landed and unloaded the sick passenger, but the pilot notified us that a part of the wing sustained damage during the landing. The mechanics at the Pape’ete International Airport, a very small airport (the largest in Tahiti, though), did not know how to fix it right away because—we were told—they had never seen a Boeing 787. We were finally updated that the flight crew had run out of hours, and therefore could not legally fly the rest of the way to New Zealand until they had rested. We would be offloaded and the Tahitian airport would find us lodging until the next day, when we would finish our flight to Auckland.
Not a lot goes according to plan in our own lives either. We spend hours creating plans for the future only to have them changed by inexplicable events. We may plan to stay at our current job, in our current city, drive our current car, or remain with our current girlfriend or boyfriend, only to see these plans changed for us. This can be at times a frustration and at times a blessing, but it is always unpredictable.
Pape’ete International Airport
Pape’ete International Airport is an open, balmy airport with an entryway of welcoming palm trees—only what you would expect on a small island such as Tahiti. It was obvious no one was expecting 300 passengers to arrive. A lone chicken wandered the gray tiled floor of the almost empty airport. The stores were closed and only one airport worker was on-site. He quickly called in more staff, and the souvenir shops and one snack shop opened their doors.
After many phone calls by the airport staff, they informed us there was not enough lodging in the city to handle 300 people. There were about 60 rooms, and families with children and first class would have first dibs. This took care of about one-third of the passengers. After many more phone calls, the airport staff found enough hostels to take in about another one-third of the passengers. The rest slept in the airport.
That evening, the airline paid for everyone to go out to eat at different restaurants. We were fortunate enough to be staying in a room at a hostel, so with the few other passengers staying at the same hostel, we went to a Tahitian-Chinese restaurant.
We sat with Fadi and her husband, who were flying from Chicago to New Zealand to visit family. They were both Iraqi-American and Fadi had left Iraq due to persecution. Her story gripped us as we ate our food. She grew up in Iraq during the American invasion and subsequent war. Friends and relatives were killed and her life was threatened. Her family, who was Christian, fled their city because of violence. They were stopped on the road and interrogated at gunpoint. They had a crucifix in their car, which alerted the interrogators. But they were dressed in traditional Muslim garb, and so were miraculously allowed to go on without incident. They knew of other individuals who had been gunned down in their cars during similar stops.
Humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps
If everything went according to our plans, our lives would not be nearly as meaningful, interesting, and impactful. We would miss many opportunities to help others, learn from others, and grow from our experiences. We would not have met the many caring people more concerned about the health of the individual who had become sick on the plane than their itineraries. When we boarded the next morning, we boarded as a group of people with shared experiences, not just a plane full of passengers.
This flight was without a doubt a financial loss for the airline and an inconvenience for everyone on board, but the crew acted out of morality and allowed external circumstances to change their plans. They redirected the flight to help save one passenger, and were successful in making sure she received the medical attention she needed. Do we act out of morality and allow experiences and circumstances to bring us together, or do we cling to our neatly designed plans? Do we allow our plans to separate us from what we could—or should—be doing? Solomon says, “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps” Proverbs 16:9.