On what I thought would be a routine flight (Delta #1107) from Philadelphia to Salt Lake City last night, I learned just how fragile our airline system really can be. As we were taxiing and getting ready for takeoff, a woman in the front of the plane suffered a "medical emergency." (She probably freaked out when someone coughed on her, thinking she'd just been given the swine flu.) So, we returned to the gate and waited while medical technicians excorted the woman from the airplane, then waited some more while the luggage was unloaded and her baggage was identified and removed.
The episode resulted in a flight delay of approximately 90 minutes. Most folks who were planning to make connections to other flights in SLC were out of luck. Still, I thought the night's excitement was behind us. Nope. Approximately 40 minutes prior to landing in SLC another medical emergency occured on the flight. This time, it appeared that a women might be going into labor. She was hustled to the rear galley of the aircraft, where the flight attendants administered quality care. (Seriously, this flight crew earned every penny last night.) Once landed in SLC, passengers again were asked to remain seated while the medical emergency was attended to by on-the-ground EMTs and police officers. By the time we disembarked, we were some 2 1/2 hours behind schedule. You can imagine the ripple effects for travels trying to make connecting flights. Most of them were forced to stay in SLC overnight.
Medical emergencies happen. However, enduring not one, but two of them on a single domestic flight last night made me realize that would-be terrorists don't need box cutters, bombs, or burning sneakers to bring airline travel to a standstill. All it would take would be a well-organized series of medical emergencies (faked or perhaps brought on by drugs or whatever) to create delays and throw a monkey wrench into the air travel system that would result in the loss of billions of dollars. And the thing is, I doubt there's one damn thing anyone could do to prevent it.