Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.

"We all had plans in Nice, you know."

That's how this Delta pilot, who was in the cockpit of this week's most fascinating, celebrity-laden flight, began to tell me his story.

The plane had turned back to New York, around halfway through its flight to Nice, after a toilet broke.

Or, perhaps, all of the toilets. Reports were unclear immediately after the event. 

Yet the twists and turns behind the decision, as told by this pilot, show that all the pilots and cabin crew knew what was at stake for everyone on board.

The Delta pilot -- let's call him Jack -- was one of three at the controls of Flight 412 from JFK to Nice last Tuesday. 

It all started, he told me, with one toilet that broke.

A thoughtless passenger had stuffed, who knows, diapers or some other unhelpful object down it.

Soon, it got worse.

"The Flight Attendants tried to reset the toilets," Jack told me.

The work on differential pressure. There's a circuit breaker that allows a reboot.

And then, calamity.

"Now, the three on the left weren't working," Jack said. "And you can't keep resetting the circuit breakers."

You can only try so many times.

It seems that, on this particular flight, no one could catch a break. 

"It still didn't clear," explained Jack. "And then the toilets on the right side stopped working as well."

It was time for the pilots to talk to maintenance and anyone else they could to see what their options were.

"There was Dublin around three and 50 minutes away and Gander [Newfoundland] about an hour and 20 minutes," said Jack. "But we received information that Gander didn't have 24-hour customs."

This, in fact, wasn't true.

All this time, the pilots were trying to gain as much information in order to make the best decision, but still they flew toward Nice.

"The problem with Gander is that there's no Delta maintenance there," said Jack. "So we'd have had to get contract maintenance and by the time they'd arrived and tried to fix things, the crew would have been out of hours. Then they'd have had to fly a new crew out. The passengers could have been there for days."

The FAA has strict, sensible regulations about how long pilots can be on the job for any given period.

But what about Dublin? 

"Three and a half hours without a working toilet?" said Jack. "Can you imagine what that would have been like? There'd have been people going to the toilet in their seats. It happens, you know."

Well, I've heard.

In the end, after consultation with everyone who could be consulted, the decision was made to turn back.

Meanwhile, however, there was one true hero.

"One of the Flight Attendants went into the first toilet and began ladling stuff out of it to get at least that one working," Jack told me. "I don't know how he did it. I wouldn't have done it."

That one Flight Attendant's intense commitment to his task meant that a single toilet became available to drain, well, liquids.

Sadly, this success was achieved shortly after the plane had turned back.

"When we got back to JFK, the maintenance people said they'd never heard anything like this happening before," Jack said. "We still don't know exactly what happened."

Jack's an experienced pilot. He's seen it all and flown it all. 

"Never in all my years of flying have I seen something like this," he told me.

Airlines don't always get the best publicity, often because the people who run many of them believe that customer service doesn't make enough money.

The longer I talked to Jack, the more he explained to me that he really wants people to know what happened (I had failed to get a statement from the airline at the time).

Jack wants everyone to understand that every possible scenario was considered by the pilots.

He believes that Delta is by far the best airline, "now that we've got good management." 

He's proud to work for the airline and he doesn't want anyone to think that the crew didn't do everything possible.

"Our guys in Nice weren't happy either. They had to stay an extra night," he told me.  

Wait a minute. An extra night in Nice? Well, that's surely better than an extra night at JFK.

Published on: Aug 17, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.