Saturday, January 10, 2004

I’m finally home in west London after the Plane Journey From Hell.

We boarded BA 633 on schedule and headed down the runway bound for London Heathrow.

But during the taxi one branch of the air conditioning on our Boeing 767 packed up; not a problem…unless the cabin filled with choking smoke mid flight.

The plane returned to the stand, the engineers got their spanners out, and after about an hour we were back on our way. But something was still clearly not right. My ears started blocking up repeatedly, as though I’d suddenly picked up a head cold.

The captain came back on the tannoy. The pressurisation system had failed.

Back to the stand. More engineering.

By this time some lily-livered passengers were getting edgy.

They wanted off.

The captain said they could disembark and promised they could pick up another flight in the morning. I was dismayed by their lack of confidence in the world’s safest form of travel but understood their misgivings. A coach pulled up alongside the plane and about a third of the passengers left – far more than I expected (a sign of the paranoid times we’re living in.)

Then, disaster struck.

Just as the (cowardly) passengers were preparing to return to their terminal they received word from the Greek ground staff that they WOULDN’T be allowed to change to a morning flight free of charge because they’d CHOSEN – of their own free will – to walk while the captain was still trying to get the plane airborne.

Pandemonium. Tears. Raised voices. Accusations.

Some financially challenged waverers got back on board, deciding to put budget before safety. Others threatened to sue BA for ever-increasing sums.

More delays as the Athens handlers tried to recover the cowards’ bags (personally, I think they deserved to forfeit their luggage on account of being cheese-eating surrender monkeys.)

Finally, after almost five hours on the tarmac, the engineers changed the oil and air filter, topped up the windscreen washed and cleared us for take-off for the third time, although by this time our ETA had slipped from 2115GMT to 0145GMT.

This time the engines started, the wheels rolled and we headed skyward, leaving the cowardly cowards who’d disembarked to fight it out at Athens Airport for an alternative flight home.

I tried to convince the BBC team I was travelling with that – like Captain Scarlett -- after my accident in Iraq I’m indestructable. No plane will crash while I’m on board (although try telling that to cameraman Mo Amin, who died in a plane crash some years after losing his arm in an explosion.)

Ultimately, though, we were all far more reassured by the words of our captain. As a father and husband, he said, there was no way he was going to take off if he thought the plane under his control was suspect.

He didn’t want to die, any more than we did.


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