"Destination", the exit form for Indian immigration demanded perfunctorily. It was tempting to put a giant question mark. All BA could promise was that the London flight would depart Mumbai shortly and land somewhere in Europe. "Basically, Madam," said the increasingly harassed official, "you have to decide whether you want to take a chance."
Some of my fellow passengers were in no mood for gambling, despite entering their sixth day of volcanic purgatory. True, we could experience a miracle and offload on UK soil, but the more likely scenario seemed to be reaching the fringes of Europe to join the back of the queue for a mammoth overland trek.
And so the flight was only half full as we soared above the Bollywood towers and slums of Mumbai. Those with small children and ailing relatives were reluctant to take the risk. Some Indian nationals only had visas for the UK and not mainland Europe. Among those waiting there were the cynical – who suspected a crude ploy to get us out of our five-star hotel – and the paranoid, who feared we were simply being used as guinea pigs for a first traversal of the giant cloud of ash.
But for those on board, any kind of movement was more appealing than another day of stasis. That said, the cheer that went up on take-off was half-hearted and suppressed by anxiety. The patches of minor turbulence we encountered had a menacing undercurrent. Everyone kept flicking to the "Map your route" screen, half expecting the cloud to suddenly appear.
As we flew into German airspace we learnt that Heathrow was still closed. We would be landing in Amsterdam. Two Dutch nurses smiled, but it was short-lived. Minutes later, the pilot was back on saying Schiphol had refused us permission to land.
Then up stepped Belgium as our unlikely saviour. As our wheels touched European soil, the captain's irritation with the continued closure of UK airspace was plain: "Here in the cockpit there was nothing visible in terms of ash as we were coming down, and nothing we could smell," he told us. "Hopefully that will make the UK Government reconsider its decision."
Whether the Government ultimately bowed to pressure from the airlines or not, our BA crew was at pains to stress that the company was lobbying hard. But blame was not top of my concerns, particularly when Belgian immigration refused to let anyone off the plane. During a restless hour on the Tarmac, you couldn't help thinking that those who had chosen to stay lounging by the pool in Mumbai had had the last laugh.
The despondency finally lifted when word came that Heathrow was finally open. Arriving at Terminal 5, the pilot could not resist one final dig. "So after all the fuss, we've made it back to London."
After 13 hours on the plane, exhaustion had set in and there was no race to passport control, no scrum to pick up bags. Shortly before midnight (or 4.30am Indian time), our dysfunctional six-day-old family emerged in the arrivals hall and went their separate ways. For me, that meant my own bed. For those still in transit the journey from hell would continue.Reuse content