Safety before schedule, always – even at Christmas

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Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.

You could argue that the passengers who boarded Qantas flight 1 from Sydney to London Heathrow on 22 December have enjoyed a unique pre-Christmas bonus: an all-expenses-paid 48-hour city break in Baku, Azerbaijan. The Azeri capital is an astonishing Bolshevism-to-bling city – a former Soviet outpost on the Caspian Sea with a fascinating Old City and dramatic new architecture.

The 400 or so passengers will, I hope, enjoy exploring the lowest-lying capital in the world (100ft below ocean level) and perhaps visit Baku’s most notable Shia mosque, Bibi Heybet, at its clifftop location south of the city centre.

But I fear they will be spending most of their time inside their rooms in the Marriott Hotel, tracking the progress of the rescue jet that is flying 8,200 miles to collect them and make the final 2,500-mile journey to London. They may also be reflecting on how, after three years in which Covid has made seeing family in distant lands so difficult, the travel gods have conspired to thwart their plans.

Over Georgia in the early hours of Friday morning, a faulty sensor indicated smoke in a cargo hold. The plane turned back over Georgia and flew 400 miles to the Azeri capital, where it landed safely. Baku airport was the closest in the region with the facilities to handle the world’s biggest passenger plane.

According to the latest prediction from the airline on Christmas Eve afternoon, they should take off soon after 5am for the five-hour final leg of their marathon journey, arriving two days late.

Heathrow at dawn on 25 December is not an especially auspicious place and time. The annual shutdown in the UK – which does not seem to take place elsewhere in Europe – means there is very limited onward transport.

I hope the Australian airline has been arranging some options during the hiatus. And I admire the resources that have enabled Qantas to provide a plane at such short notice. Even with post-pandemic aviation at full stretch, the carrier has “operational spares” on standby over the peak Christmas and New Year season “to help recover customers in the event of an unexpected disruption”.

Having planes, pilots and cabin crew sitting around just in case of a false alarm over the Caucasus is a formidably expensive choice, given the money Qantas could have been earning with those assets, but I imagine the passengers will be grateful.

On board the otherwise empty ferry flight will be engineers whose job is to fix the faulty sensor in the cargo hold that caused such comprehensive festive mayhem.

“We know this has been a significant disruption for customers ahead of Christmas,” says Qantas.

If all goes to schedule, the weary passengers will land at Heathrow just as another planeload of disrupted travellers prepare to set off on their own 25 December journey: the British Airways flight to New York JFK due out on Christmas Eve at teatime has been postponed to 8am on Christmas Day. But at least Heathrow airport is open for business.

Dublin airport says Father Christmas is the reason for its annual closure on 25 December, “to ensure clear air traffic control space from midnight for Santa’s sleigh”.

The passengers on Aer Lingus flight EI106 from New York to the Irish capital who were hoping to be home for Christmas may not sympathise: their plane took off on the evening 23 December but immediately returned to JFK because of a technical fault. Safety before schedule, always. But at this time of year, with so much emotion bound into every journey, the travel gods can be cruel.

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