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Ultimate travel nightmare: 34 hours on a plane

As travel horror stories go, this one is a doozy.

A Cathay Pacific flight from New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport to Hong Kong wound up being a 34-hour journey—including a 15-hour unscheduled layover in Zhuhai, China—where the 256 passengers never left the plane.

"It was unbelievable," one passenger on the flight said. "We couldn't get off the plane. The crew couldn't get off the plane. All we could do was wait for it to end."

File photo of a Cathay Pacific jet on the tarmac in Hong Kong.
Philippe Lopez | AFP | Getty Images
File photo of a Cathay Pacific jet on the tarmac in Hong Kong.

What happened? How could travelers be kept on a plane for the equivalent of a day and a half?

Blame it on a combination of severe weather, restrictions on how many hours a flight crew can work and government policies that kept passengers from getting off the plane during their layover.

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"When I heard about this I immediately felt sympathy for the passengers and the crew," said Julie Jarratt, a spokesperson for Cathay Pacific. "This was certainly a rare circumstance and one we want to avoid if at all possible."

When Cathay Pacific Flight CX831 left JFK on the afternoon of March 29, it was expected to be a routine 16-hour flight to Hong Kong. It was an uneventful trip until the plane made its approach into Hong Kong, which was in the midst of a nasty storm that included lightning, high winds and hail storms.

"It was rough," one passenger said. "We had to abort our landing [and] pull up while constantly being buffeted by strong winds."

The conditions were so bad, CX831 was diverted to land in Zhuhai, a Chinese city not far from Hong Kong.

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But once the aircraft landed in Zhuhai, the passengers and crew were forced to stay on board the Boeing 777. Cathay Pacific said the restriction was put in place by Chinese government leaders in charge of immigration and customs at the airport, who would not allow passengers to disembark.

In a letter to passengers, Cathay Pacific said, "The fact that we do not usually operate at Zhuhai airport, combined with the local immigration requirement that all passengers remain on-board, made this a particularly difficult diversion to handle."

Meanwhile, the Cathay Pacific pilots and crew were now "timed out," and required by law to rest. So the folks on Flight CX831 were forced to wait on their plane for a replacement crew to come to Zhuhai from Hong Kong.

It turned into 15 hours that seemed surreal for some.

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"The folks at the airport fueled our plane a couple times and brought over water and food so we could use the bathrooms. We had food and the heating and AC were always on," said one passenger. "All of that helped, but we still couldn't go anywhere."

While passengers on CX831 waited hour after hour, a crew from Cathay Pacific worked its way over to Zhuhai. But even that journey wasn't a quick one. The Chinese authorities wouldn't allow the replacement crew to fly into Zhuhai, so they had to take a transport ferry across the Pearl River from Hong Kong to Macau, and then drive an hour to the city.

When they finally arrived, the passengers had been on the plane for more than 30 hours.

Incredibly, most remained in relatively good spirits.

"Nobody was freaking out," said one passenger on the plane. "Everyone was abnormally calm considering how long we had been sitting there."

At 1:08 p.m. on March 31, Flight CX831 finally took off for Hong Kong. It touched down just over an hour later.

The 34-hour journey ended with each passenger walking off the plane with 2,000 Chinese yuan (approximately $322) from Cathay Pacific. They also received an apology letter explaining what happened and, if needed, the chance to rebook connecting flights, go to the airline lounge, or book hotel rooms.

"This flight was definitely not a good representation of what Cathay Pacific wants to happen on its flights," Jarratt said.

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau.

Follow Road Warrior on Twitter at @CNBCtravel.

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