It was that unmistakable, acrid smell of an electrical system gone bad. Not strong, not overpowering, mind you, but definitely indicative that Something Wasn’t Right.
The problem was, we were at about 35,000 feet about an hour outside of Chicago, heading west on what was supposed to be a non-stop flight to Oakland.
About the same time the smell became noticeable, the plane started descending and the pilot came on the intercom. Although there weren’t any anomalies showing up on the cockpit lights, he said, there was definitely something amiss and we needed to check it out. (Interestingly, he was careful to never use the word "fire" in his descriptions.) Luckily we were just coming up on Omaha, Nebraska, which is both the most sizable airport in the region and happened to also be a city that is serviced by Southwest. They cleared us for immediate landing and we were greeted by the entire fire brigade lining the runway.
Our landing roll seemed longer than usual; we didn’t do the customary slam-on-the-brakes and engage the thrust reversers. Instead we used the length of the runway, and actually stopped on the runway itself so that the fire crew could visually inspect the outside of the aircraft. Noting nothing immediately out of place, they cleared us to a gate, with trucks trailing us on both sides.
Pulling into the gate, they were adamant that we get our bags and deplane as quickly as possible. Two firefighters, shielded in visors and full silver inferno gear, got on the plane as soon as the door opened. They hustled us off and the Southwest reps told us "they’d know more soon."
Not knowing the situation, I high-tailed it to the next gate and got booked on a later set of flights, just in case our plane ended up being pulled out of service.
Indications were good, however, throughout the whole escapade. Through the window of the gate, we could see that the pilot stayed in the cockpit. Eventually, the firefighters gave a "thumbs up," and rolled their truck away. It looked like ice was being loaded on the plane.
After about two hours, the "all clear" was given. Apparently, an electrical circuit breaker or relay had failed in the galley, which had now been replaced. The plane was given a full once-over, topped off on fuel and we were allowed to reboard. We then continued on our way on what we think was the only Omaha-Oakland route that Southwest has ever flown.
Major kudos to the SWA service folks through the whole affair. In the air on the initial descent, they were extremely professional, and snapped brilliantly from the cheeky, joking Southwest mode to "ok, we’ve got stuff to do" mode while we were coming into Omaha on the diversion. They did a good job keeping us updated during the time we were off the plane on the status, and as soon as any information came available, it was relayed to the passengers. They made good decisions, and got us home safely. A+ effort all around.