I offer my condolences to the 300+ passengers on Air India flight 131 from Mumbai to London earlier this week, who were trapped on a 777 for nine hours in a comedy of errors that further diminishes the image of Air India.
Fog is not something out of the ordinary in London, but the early morning fog around London Heathrow was apparently a bit too much for the flight crew to handle, so they elected to divert to London Gatwick Airport, 45 miles away.
The crew assured passengers that they would be on their way to Heathrow in less than 90 minutes, but the 0930 landing slot at Heathrow was soon pushed back to 1330 by air traffic controllers. If that time held up, the crew would go illegal, having worked more than the maximum permitted hours, before the aircraft could take off.
With no operations at Gatwick, Air India faced a quandary: let the passengers off or hope the takeoff slot would improve if they sat ready to go. They chose the latter option.
That turned out to be a big mistake. First the food ran out. Then the water. Gatwick Airport officials offered to help with provisions, but cash-strapped Air India refused, sending for its catering truck from Heathrow (as if the bottles of water and junk food would have cost more than the fuel to get the truck over).
Air India was likely also thinking about the landing fee and what to do about bags had passengers actually alighted at Gatwick. And immigration issues? What about passengers who might have been transiting without a visa and now had to get from Gatwick to Heathrow?
Those concerns aside, for most of the 300+ passengers the thought of being back in London but being barred by the airline from getting off the aircraft…for nine hours…must have been nerve-racking. At one point, police were called in to restore order on the plane.
Once it became clear the crew could not legally work any longer, a replacement crew was bussed in from Heathrow, though apparently they got lost on the way over! Truly a comedy of errors.
Finally the aircraft took off and made it to Heathrow almost ten hours later. Passengers were met by Air India representatives at Heathrow distributing notes expressing “sincere apologies for any inconvenience” but offering no compensation.
I tired to be as fair as possible in my characterization of this story, but I cannot accept any justification for what can only be characterized as false imprisonment. Air India had an obligation to let passengers off the plane when it became clear they would be delayed for more than a couple hours and food supplies were waning. Despite all the excuses, passengers were already in London and should have at least been given a choice of whether they wanted to remain onboard or exit.
Perhaps Air India’s “your palace in the sky” slogan should also include “your dog house on the ground.”