Could this be the most expensive cigarette in history? At tea-time eight days before Christmas, Air Canada flight 850 was ready to depart from Calgary to Heathrow – except for one passenger, who was miles from the gate, enjoying a last, sneaky smoke before the nine-hour, nicotine-free trip across the Arctic and Atlantic.
The ground staff deployed the standard procedure to keep the delay as short as possible: they started looking for the passenger's bag to offload. If they had found it before the tardy traveller turned up, the gate would have closed and the plane dispatched without her. But the passenger sauntered along while the baggage handlers were still searching; to avoid further delay, she was allowed aboard.
What with slot constraints and de-icing delays, the plane was two hours late as the final approach to Heathrow began. At that moment, a decision by the airport's owner, BAA, to spend only four-fifths of one penny per passenger in extra snow-proofing for this winter came unstuck.
The efforts to keep both runways clear were overwhelmed by a remarkable five inches of snow in one hour (according to BAA) or three-and-a-half inches of snow in four hours (according to the Met Office). Whichever version you prefer, the effect was to close runways and destroy normal operations at Heathrow for the next three days, wrecking upwards of half a million journeys.
On the flight deck of AC850, the pilots declared a diversion to Paris Charles de Gaulle – an airport where, at least, Air Canada has some representation. Virgin Atlantic passengers from South Africa enjoyed unexpected sojourns in Palma de Mallorca and Marseilles, not destinations on the radar for Sir Richard Branson's airline. And Eva Air customers from Taiwan shivered for four days in Cologne – their baggage could not be unloaded until the Boeing was finally allowed into Heathrow.
Mike and Anne-Marie Whittingham, who live in the province of Alberta and were aboard the Air Canada jet, told me the rest of the story when I met them some days later at Heathrow.
"Charles de Gaulle was as full as Heathrow – it was just silly," they said. "There were three Air Canada flights diverted at the same time, and there was only one agent to deal with everyone."
Eventually, hotel rooms and meal vouchers were handed out, and the passengers waited for news (at least one of them, I imagine, passing the time by smoking her way through the duty-frees). After three days and nights, Air Canada's bill for the wayward Calgary flight alone was approaching the £500,000 Heathrow had invested to snow-proof the airport, with staff "ready, waiting and doing everything we can in making every journey better for our passengers".
All the Air Canada passengers in Paris needed to make their journey better was to escape their in-transit limbo. So the airline that promised "flights so good you won't want to get off" laid on a fleet of buses. What should have been a nine-hour flight to Heathrow ended with a nine-hour overnight coach trip through the Channel Tunnel to Heathrow. Whoever ended up sitting next to the errant smoker was, presumably, fuming.
On the lookout for a silver lining
Mike Whittingham came in from the cold of the coach park, and wearily hauled his cases – still bearing the original luggage tags attached in Calgary – through the foil-clad, thwarted flyers sleeping on the floor of Terminal 3 Arrivals. The man from Alberta observed: "Where we come from, it is minus 40C over winter and we get quite a bit of snow."
Chelsea and Marco Ferreira, honeymooners hoping to get home to Guernsey, were checking out their new winter look beside a Salvation Army van. The newlyweds looked more akin to roasting turkeys rather than travellers who had fallen foul of bad weather: "We've each got a very attractive foil blanket. It looks like the new fashion, because everybody is wearing it." Their trip had been extended by three days in the fashion capital of Europe, Milan, the diversion destination of choice for Air Mauritius.
"They looked after us really well," the couple told me, as they sported their very own silver linings.