Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

How a sprained ankle left air passengers hopping mad

Perhaps you were among the Virgin Atlantic passengers waiting at Gatwick on Tuesday for a well-deserved holiday flight to Florida. You will have noticed - as did 400 passengers expecting to fly home from a Christmas break in Orlando - that the flight was three hours late. The reason: your plane had spent the morning not at Gatwick but at Heathrow.

The Boeing 747 in question was flying in from Nassau in the Bahamas to Gatwick, but was running late because of an earlier technical problem. It was all set to land shortly after 8am. Then the airfield staff at the Sussex airport closed the runway for 10 minutes to apply anti-icing protection against a cold snap.

Gatwick is the busiest single-runway airport in the world, with queues for arrivals and departures during the morning rush hour. The Virgin captain was offered the choice between continuing to "stack" until the runway re-opened, or to divert to Heathrow.

Normally a pilot would opt to stay in the queue for the intended airport. But because of the earlier delay, he and his colleagues were close to their maximum permitted hours. So he diverted to Heathrow, where passengers were put on buses to Gatwick, while the plane finally arrived there seven hours late, delaying the Florida flight.

THEY WERE lucky, at least compared with the hapless holidaymakers expecting to fly home from the Maldives on Boxing Day morning. Their First Choice Airways flight arrived at Gatwick nearly a day late - because of a sprained ankle. The injury was suffered by the captain shortly before he was due to fly back.

A replacement (captain, not ankle) had to be flown out. But he could not step off that flight and on to the waiting aircraft. The law requires a mandatory 12 hours break before he was allowed to fly the plane back. As a result, the passengers arrived 21 hours behind schedule.

"We are very sorry indeed," says First Choice. Some good news: the ankle is getting better.

WHENEVER AN aircraft is involved in an emergency landing, the first concern is for the passengers and crew. On Wednesday, the pilots aboard British Airways flight 176 from New York JFK to Heathrow smelt smoke in the cockpit as they entered UK airspace. The Boeing 747 diverted to Cardiff. Happily, all 17 crew left the aircraft safely - as did both passengers. Yes, that's "both".

BA's Jumbo jets hold between 300 and 350 passengers. So why did this one have so many empty seats?

I hesitate to use the word "jinxed" about any land, sea or air craft, but Victor Yankee was not having a happy journey. On the approach into New York, it had suffered a bird strike. This is less bad news for the aircraft than it is for the unfortunate creature, but the plane was delayed for six hours while engineers checked the damage.

A nuisance, too, for the 259 passengers originally booked to fly on BA176? No. Between 6.30pm and 10.30pm each evening, no fewer than six BA jets are scheduled to fly from New York JFK to Heathrow. With plenty of seats available at this time of year, all the passengers were switched to other flights. Except for two.

What could have persuaded them to wait for the plane to be ready, rather than getting home more or less on time? The fact that they were friends of the crew, and were travelling on BA staff tickets. I wonder which of the four classes on board they might have ended up in.

Of course, the airline had no choice but to bring the plane and its crew back to base. Flying a Jumbo jet between the two cities costs British Airways around £50,000. On the airline's website on Wednesday, the affected flight was described as "cancelled". I bet the BA bean counters wish it had been.

MAY THE coming year safely bring you few delays but many adventures and encounters. And should you find yourself stuck for hours in some far-flung departure lounge - whether because of ankle injuries or kamikaze birds - stop looking at your watch.

Instead, start celebrating the amazing opportunities we have to travel, and just be glad you don't have to run an airline.

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