Along with over 100 other passengers, I was stranded on AI 131 – the Air India flight from Mumbai to London yesterday for nine hours. Our scheduled time of arrival at Heathrow airport was 7:30 am. At 8 pm we were told that the plane would be diverted to Gatwick airport (an airport that is close to London – about 44 miles) because of weather conditions.
For several hours after that, we were given no official information about what was going on. The mood on the plane in the morning was calm. Many passengers from India have come to expect delays on Air India flights. The national carrier isn’t exactly famous for its prompt service. Many commentators have often analyzed why Air India suffers from an image problem and what may be possible solutions.
Back to the plane – by noon, the mood was changing. As young children became restless, the adults started demanding answers from the crew. To be frank, at one level, I felt for the crew, who said they didn’t know what was going on either. Many other passengers however, found that hard to believe.
One of the crew members was trying to explain to an irate passenger that they need permission from Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in India to proceed further who in turn needed to speak with some other agencies. He responded by telling me that how should he explain all of this to his pregnant wife and toddler son.
When passengers gathered in the cockpit asking the pilot to come out and explain what was going on, this for me, was turning into a story. As passengers started calling for the pilot, I started contacting colleagues at the BBC and fellow journalists to tell them about what was going on.
While some juice and water bottles came in, there was still no sign of lunch. I think hunger can often make people very angry. A professor who was calm just an hour ago suddenly became very aggressive.
The toilets turned into no-go areas. The one I saw was stuffed with tissues and the smell was unbearable.
A few hours later, around 1 pm, we were told that a new crew would be needed to fly us out of Gatwick back to Heathrow because EU regulations don’t permit a crew to be on board for more than a specified number of hours which pacified few of the passengers.
But the new crew was no where to be seen till 3 pm. That’s when things got out of hand and passengers demanded that the pilot must explain to everyone what is going on.
Mark Shorey, a fellow passenger decided to pick up his bag and left the plane. That’s when the police were called in.
I will never forget what one particular crew member had to say when asked difficult questions. Why was there no food on board? “Because all the food at Gatwick is over!” he said.
A few hours later he said that the new crew has lost its way at Gatwick. And one of his colleagues said that the pilot cannot leave the cockpit because he is protecting property (i.e. the plane) which is worth millions of dollars.
Many passengers were livid when they heard this explanation. I had by then eaten about 7 packets of chips and some aerated drinks as my afternoon meal.
One lady crew member showed a lot of courage by standing between the passengers and the cockpit gently reminding everyone that crossing that line would be a legal offense and even managing to smile through it all.
Sadly, that wasn’t enough for a lot of passengers who had clearly had enough.
An uneasy calm prevailed as the police walked down the aisle a couple of times.
At about 4 pm, things started changing for the better. As I was talking to BBC news channel live on air suddenly everyone was clapping. A word had gone around that the new crew had finally arrived.
A fellow passenger had given me a phone charger and my phone was working again as well. I tweeted about what was going on and was relieved that we would make it out of Gatwick.
An hour later we were in the air again. As were landed on Terminal 4, we were given an apology letter from Air India still not telling us why were stranded at Gatwick for so many hours. And after this experience, many passengers didn’t really care. Most just wanted to get home.