British Airways forced to do 10-hour ‘flight to nowhere’ as Niger suddenly closes airspace

Exclusive: Virgin Atlantic and British Airways overnight flights were diverted to Lagos to refuel

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Monday 07 August 2023 10:13 BST
Niger closes airspace as deadline to reinstate president passes

British Airways passengers on an Airbus A380 from Johannesburg to London Heathrow went on a 10-hour “flight to nowhere” when Niger’s airspace was suddenly closed late on Sunday night.

Other flights between the UK and South Africa have being re-routed or diverted to take on extra fuel or have returned to their starting points as a result of the closure.

After a military coup ousted President Mohamed Bazoum, the Ecowas regional bloc has threatened intervention to restore the leader.

In response, the ruling junta, led by General Abdourahmane Tchiani, closed the vast country – which is six times the area of Great Britain – to overflying aircraft.

The closure took effect at 11.22pm British time on Sunday, when several UK-South Africa flights were already airborne.

Airspace over Sudan and Libya is already closed to commercial aviation. The addition of Niger means there is now a block to north-south flights across Africa stretching around 2,600 miles from western Niger to the Red Sea.

British Airways flight BA56 from Johannesburg flew as far as Chad before turning back to its starting point. It was being operated by an Airbus A380 “SuperJumbo”, with space for nearly 500 passengers.

Flight BA64 from Nairobi to Heathrow took a similar path, turning back after three hours to return to the Kenyan capital.

Virgin Atlantic’s flight VS450 from Johannesburg to London Heathrow was the first aircraft to be diverted. The plane departed as normal from South Africa’s largest city and flew over Botswana and Angola en route to Chad – where it turned west to fly to Lagos to take on more fuel.

The Boeing 787 landed almost four hours behind schedule. Passengers are not entitled to compensation as the diversion counts as “extraordinary circumstances”.

British Airways flight BA58 from Cape Town to London Heathrow was also diverted via Lagos. It took off as normal early on Sunday evening and followed a normal track over Namibia, Angola, Gabon, Cameroon and Nigeria.

But data on the tracking service Flightradar24 shows the aircraft briefly entering Niger airspace at around the time the “Notam” instruction to pilots was issued. The Boeing 777 then turns southwest to fly almost the length of Nigeria before landing at Lagos airport at 1.38am on Monday, British time. Like the Virgin Atlantic flight, it arrived four hours late at Heathrow.

Heading south, the early evening British Airways departure from London Heathrow to Johannesburg, BA55, made it as far as southern Algeria before returning to London – where it touched down at 4.40am.

But the later flight, BA57, was able to take off more or less as normal, and took a long westerly course to Johannesburg . It touched down about one hour late.

The British Airways departure from Heathrow to Cape Town took off shortly before 1am and is expected to land around three hours late.

A spokesperson for BA said: “We’ve apologised to those customers affected for the disruption to their journeys. Our teams are working hard to get them on their way again as quickly as possible.”

The Independent has asked Virgin Atlantic to comment.

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