Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

What comes down . . . doesn't always go back up so easily
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The Independent Travel

Seven Stans: to get from Sydney to London, you quite often have to get past at least one of them. These adjacent nations comprise Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and - bigger than all the rest put together - Kazakhstan. They own the overflying rights and charge airlines for using the sky. And they also possess the airports at which, when pressed, a captain might want to land a Boeing 747.

If Heathrow airport at 6.50am on a Saturday morning sounds an unappealing destination, perhaps you have simply not considered the alternatives. At around 2am last Saturday, the 354 passengers dozing on a fully laden jumbo from Bangkok to London were about to discover a much less favourable option.

A warning light on the flight deck indicated a fire in one of the cargo holds. The pilot's immediate reaction was to find the first airport where the 747 could safely land. But being able to put down the world's largest passenger plane currently in service does not mean you can get it off the ground again, especially when it has a full complement of people and cargo. That unbalanced state of affairs applies at the military air base outside the morose city of Uralsk in western Kazakhstan.

Every flight plan includes a range of diversion airports, but some are more desirable than others. "I recall a diversion to Yellowknife, northern Canada, where passengers were put up in a hangar," says a senior executive for a leading long-haul airline. "The hospitality of the local community meant the lack of comfort was more than compensated for. Local kids came to the airport to lend their toys to the children who had been on board. The moral: if you have to divert, you are better off going to a Canadian airport."

As dawn broke over the wastes of Kazakhstan, it became clear that things were going very badly indeed. Being a military air base close to an international border, it was bereft of almost all the usual airport facilities, and the authorities were unhappy about the prospect of 354 people wandering around. So they wanted to keep everyone on board until help arrived - in effect, a hijack without the hijackers. A compromise was reached whereby 100 passengers at a time were allowed off to go and sit in a room for an hour. Local kids bearing toys for young passengers were conspicuous by their absence.

THE ONLY scheduled service from Uralsk flies twice a week to the Kazakh capital, Astana, on an airline that has yet to acquire the cachet of Virgin Atlantic or BA: "Aircompany Kokshetau". Amazingly, a direct train runs from Uralsk to Berlin, a wayward departure that shuttles weekly between the Kazakh and German capitals. But the first- and club-class passengers who had paid thousands of pounds for lie-flat beds were not expecting to share a mobile dormitory with dozens of snoring Cossacks. So BA came up with plan B.

Sending another jumbo would have been pointless, since it would not be able to take off. Instead, a narrow-bodied Airbus A320 was dispatched from Heathrow for the four-and-a-half-hour flight to Uralsk. As luck would have it, BA happened to have another Airbus on the ground in the Romanian capital, Bucharest: it had just been repaired after engine problems, and was consequently only a two-hour flight away.

Fourteen hours after their unexpected arrival in Kazakhstan, 150 premium passengers, plus families with children, took off aboard the first rescue plane to London.

The second plane flew its 150 passengers only as far as Moscow; here, they were transferred to a BA scheduled departure that had been delayed on the ground awaiting their arrival. (Imagine how thrilled the passengers on a half-empty plane were to be told that they would have to wait several hours so their plane could be packed to the gunwales.)

The Airbus then flew back to Uralsk for the 54 unhappy stragglers who had drawn the shortest straws, plus all 20 crew. They finally took off after 20 hours being stuck on a plane on the ground in a country they had no wish to visit. And the plane? A crew was flown out to bring it back, empty, except for the luggage of 354 passengers and an equal number of steadily decomposing inflight meals. The bags, but not the breakfasts, were brought back by a special cargo flight.

With a palaver like that, no wonder BA has raised its fuel surcharge. Some good news: the faulty light has been fixed.