A couple of years ago my family took a trip to Delhi, India and I wrote this review but thought I had lost it forever. After a recent discovery I decided to post the tale. To-date this is the only time we have ever encountered an emergency landing and faced a diversion after more than a million butt-in-seat miles flown. Here is how British Airways completely botched a solvable situation.
On a recent trip to Delhi, my wife and 18 month old daughter found ourselves on a flight path from Chicago to London (overnight) and London to Delhi. We were able to use upgrades for an American Airlines flight form my Executive Platinum Status and though that flight was delayed and we switched to British Airways, our confirmed upgrades were honored. Great move American Airlines! After a lovely flight the night before from Chicago we found ourselves with plenty of time in Heathrow to make our connection and find our gate. We even fit in a little time for coffee.
The gate area was unexpectedly barren and the flight was surprisingly open with just 113 passengers booked on the flight. Hilariously, I tried to pay with either cash or points to upgrade to even just premium economy for the eight and a half hour daytime flight and they wanted thousands per person, despite the flight being wide open. I am so glad we didn’t spend a dime because we ended up with two rows to ourselves and we could have had a far more serious situation.
We pushed back ahead of schedule and our flight headed out over northern Europe. Specialty meals (in this case mostly pre-reserved vegetarian entrees) came out about an hour into service. I was well into an “airplane film” (a movie you wouldn’t pay to see in a theater but given a limited choice on an airplane, you are enthusiastic to watch). I was about halfway into Tomorrowland (don’t judge me I had exhausted the rest of my options) when an announcement came over the PA that the IFE needed to be reset, we would need to start our movies over when it came back on in about 15 minutes. Not a chance Clooney, I’d rather try my luck at Veep, but I wouldn’t get the opportunity.
“Can the Chief Flight Attendant please report to the cockpit?” the captain said ominously over the speakers.
My wife, who even eight years on and hundreds if not more than a thousand flights later is still a bit nervous from time to time, was clearly understanding exactly what was taking place and she was not excited about it.
Something was wrong.
“Folks, as some of you in our business and first class cabin have realized, we have some fumes that have entered the cabin and I have taken the decision to divert the aircraft to Frankfurt. We should be on the ground in 20 minutes to determine the cause of the issue and then hopefully right back on our way to Delhi. Please follow the instructions of your crew members as they prepare the plane for landing.”
Fumes are not good. I thought this might have been an oxygen mask situation and was wondering why they didn’t drop them if people in the front of the aircraft were breathing fumes which we now realized was serious enough to shut off the IFE system to avoid a potential fire or explosion. We never received an answer and we didn’t press for it, we just followed instructions.
Calm In A Storm
I have watched enough aircraft crash investigation shows to walk my wife through the potential procedures and what to expect. I think her take on whether or not this was helpful would be a good addition to this piece.
At the time it was early into a long haul flight so we would have been heavy on fuel and would either try to bleed some out of the engines to make us lighter or might have to take the Brace, Brace position upon landing as the extra weight could cause the gear to collapse. Though the masks never dropped we reviewed how to do put them on, to pull them to start air and that we would first put our own on before helping our daughter. We were in nearly the back row so an emergency exit was not hard to find, but still discussed that in the event we needed to evacuate, I would exit holding our daughter first out of a safe slide and my wife would follow. This wasn’t a failed case of chivalry but rather the priority to get our daughter off safely was paramount and my wife would prefer that I jumped down the slide (if necessary) holding our daughter rather than her.
Lights and Excellent Organization from Frankfurt Airport
Though it was our first such diversion, the ominous lights of firetrucks at the edge of the runway are haunting. I thought back to all of my hours spent watching emergency landings (because I am a true airplane geek) and usually I know what comes next and it’s not an uneventful landing.
Thankfully this one was, and with the lights of the fire truck reflecting off of our white triple seven, we were followed to a brief holding area before parking at a stand and then being swarmed by staff.
Firetrucks, buses for passengers, and stairways were all ready for our arrival – they had 20 minutes for us to land and were prepared for our arrival. The Frankfurt staff had designated a place to take the passengers and when we arrived that the holding gate off of a transfer bus, it was already branded for British Airways and there was a British Airways trainee there (poor soul) to answer the questions we had with answers he didn’t know.
The holding gate or cell area is a kind of geopolitical purgatory. Our flight was en route from London to Delhi and while passengers had paperwork sorted for their origin and destination in advance, some may not have been eligible to enter Germany. In a true emergency situation where medical attention would have been required or a potential overnight stay perhaps a temporary emergency visa would have been granted for those that did not otherwise qualify. However, that is a lot of paperwork and hoops to jump through if the maintenance issue is only temporary or a rescue plane can quickly be dispatched to help us carry on our journey.
It was in this Purgatory hole that we sat with hundreds of other passengers from our flight and others in similar situations (diverted to Frankfurt for one reason or another) with basic provisions. This is a secured building with no outside access and a vending machine only (hope you happen to have Euros in your pocket). While first and business class passengers were promptly re-routed on competing airlines (there were no oneworld carriers from Frankfurt with direct flights to Delhi) and sent on their way, the rest of us had to take what was given.
Next up for re-routing and assignment was oneworld elite members, of which we were all elite (including our two-year old infant). I was an Emerald (top-tier), my wife was a Sapphire (middle tier comparable to Star Gold) and our daughter was oneworld Ruby (25,000 mile level) despite her being young enough to not have to buy a ticket yet.
We waited patiently for new information, it seemed that our aircraft may be cleared to take us onward and we were trying to be calm and avoid shouting at the counter as some had taken to. It couldn’t have been 10AM when we initially landed in Frankfurt, but without any new information, and the best flight options quickly evaporating on other carriers, by 2PM we were getting nervous.
Facts were sparse and seemed to be closer to lies than truth. Announcements were made about ice an hour with no real remedy nor timeline ahead. Here are some mis-truths we were told at the time:
- A replacement aircraft has been sent.
- The current aircraft is fine and being repaired.
- Everyone will fly back to London to pick up an aircraft from there, though the aircraft has to first be flown into Frankfurt to pick up the passengers.
- Guests will be re-booked in an orderly manner starting with elite status.
In the end, we should have ignored our polite sensibilities and been more aggressive. It was only after a small mob that had amassed at the counter that actions were taken and coach passengers began to find a way out.
Twitter and Phone Support
I find that Twitter responses, because they bring to light a real problem from a real person publicly, tend to be fast and helpful. If I have an issue, this is where I run first regardless of the issue or travel provider (hotel, airline, rental cars).I recently started the conversation for my more recent Air Transat issue as well. British Airways Twitter responses were unhelpful. Their information was hours behind and their responses were significantly delayed. When calling in, their phone reps were even less helpful. I sat on hold, routing through the phone tree, and walking agent after agent through our situation at a cost of $.20/minute thanks to T-Mobile. Each had a different reason why they couldn’t help, and none were particularly helpful.
It was only weeks after our travel was completed that we were properly awarded our EU 261 compensation. In the moment, neither Twitter nor phone support were anything other than a hinderance and frustration. I don’t expect every transaction, flight, meal, etc. to go right, in fact I expect some to go wrong – there’s no love lost for a mistake or an issue like this, but it is how that failure is dealt with that shows the strength of a brand to me. British Airways handling of this event was bad on the phone, the internet, and in-person. They didn’t do what they said they would do, they didn’t even inform us we could leave the area with our (then) 18-month old child at any point who would choose since we have passports that allow us to enter Germany freely.
As patience subsided and the last flights direct to Delhi were leaving for the day, the crowd turned to mob and despite our good manners, those that shouted the loudest were getting flights out – I wish we had abandoned decorum earlier in the day but was trying to avoid embodying European stereotypes of Americans. Once I began jockeying for position at the front and demanding action, tickets were printed for coach on Air India and we were off to Delhi.
Collectively, we were pretty happy that as much as we have flown over the last decade this is the one and only emergency landing we have ever had and it went as smoothly as it could be. But I also think that British Airways could have found a solution faster and better than the cold shoulder until the passengers gathered their pitchforks 10 hours into the imprisonment.
Have you encountered an emergency landing away from the airline’s hub? Was your (hopefully safe) experience better, worse or is this about par for the course?