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#1 Dec 27, 2017 3:56 pm

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When British Airways turned a 747 around to pick me up

It was August 17th, 1996, and I was flying from Washington D.C. to Johannesburg, via a 12-hour layover in London. As usual as soon as I cleared immigration at Heathrow Airport at the crack of dawn, I headed straight to my brother Peter’s flat in Camberwell. It was great to reconnect and as customary we intended to make the most of our brief reunion.

Starting at the pub. Peter’s local, the Two Brewers, was a legendary Peckham pub and a haven for wide boys, ne’er-do-wells and other dodgy geezers, and that Sunday it was packed for a crucial World Cup qualifying game: England versus Greece. The game started at four and my flight was at six, so unfortunately I wouldn’t be able to watch it. Sod that I thought, and called British Airways reservations. There was a later flight to Joburg, leaving Heathrow at 9PM, so I changed my booking to the later flight. Confirmed.

I told the reservations person that my suitcase was booked on the six o’clock flight, so please make sure and re-book it onto the later flight. Sure he said, confirmed. Not content with that I actually called the BA baggage department at Heathrow, and spoke to, shall we say, Jim. I explained the situation to Jim, gave him the number on my baggage tag, and asked him to please make sure it was loaded onto the nine o’clock flight, not the six o’clock.

“Don’t you worry mate, confirmed.”

Great, now off to the Brewers to watch the match! And what a match it was, with Beckham scoring a brilliant, curling last-gasp free kick, to ensure England’s place in the 1998 World Cup Finals. Not that it did them much good, England went out at the quarter-final stage as usual. After the game Peter dropped me at Heathrow at 8PM on his bike, in plenty of time to catch my confirmed 9PM flight. Or so I thought.

I went up to the check-in and explained that I had originally been booked on the 6PM flight, but had rebooked onto the 9PM flight. She checked in her computer.

“Well,” she said. “You are not confirmed on the 9PM flight, which in any case is full, and the 6PM flight has already left. You’re not flying to Johannesburg tonight.”

“What?? But I called reservations, I was confirmed!”

“Well, you may have thought you were, but you weren’t.” Then she looked at her screen, puzzled.

“Wait a minute. It seems that the 6PM flight, which is now somewhere over northern France, is turning around and coming back to Heathrow. For you!”

“What?? Why?”

“Because your suitcase is on the plane, and airplanes are not allowed to carry a suitcase without its owner also on board.”

I was stunned: they turned the whole plane around, just for me?

“Actually no, they turned it around to take your suitcase off, but as you’re here you might as well get on board, it would save us time searching for your bag. But you’ve got to hurry, the crew are approaching their maximum allowable hours.”

But the plane, a Boeing 747, couldn’t land with a full load of fuel, so it had to circle over the English Channel for about twenty minutes – dumping fuel! Apparently this is not an uncommon occurrence: “Generally dumping happens at a high enough altitude for it to dissipate – it doesn't reach the ground in liquid form or come raining down on people. It sounds terrible but one way or another that fuel is going into the atmosphere.” I can’t remember how much they dumped, I think it was about thirty thousand gallons. Thirty thousand gallons? I felt like a mass polluter!

They took me downstairs, loaded me into a car and took me through the bowels of Heathrow, around parked airplanes, dodging fuel tankers, catering trucks and baggage wagons, until we got to my jumbo jet, parked off the end of the runway. By this time the crew had only about five minutes of allowable time left so they whisked me on board, hurriedly closed the door and were given immediate clearance to take off.

Of course by this time the passengers were none too pleased having to turn back for this idiot who’d missed his flight, so they upgraded me to first class - sweet.

Hey, it wasn’t MY fault!

Last edited by New Historian (Dec 27, 2017 4:13 pm)

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#2 Dec 28, 2017 2:09 pm

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Re: When British Airways turned a 747 around to pick me up

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#3 Dec 29, 2017 6:29 pm

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Re: When British Airways turned a 747 around to pick me up

That was a while back, I bet nowadays regardless of you being there, and them being able to jump a slot to take off? I would bet nowadays they would just have turned and dumped the passengers.

Admittedly it wasn't because of an unexpected passenger, but I have ridden 4 hours out, and then watched the horizon swivel as they turned around, and then announced we were returning to Gatwick because the plane had gone mechanical. Overnight at the Hilton, and away the next morning. No coffee packets and kettle in the Hilton... Mean buggers.

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