by Travel desk, The Independent, April 28, 2017
Qantas has finally announced its long anticipated non-stop service between London Heathrow and Perth. The 17-hour flight, which will cover 9,009 miles, is the first service to go directly to Australia from the UK. To celebrate this achievement, The Independent travel desk shares some of the worst long-haul flight nightmares, from near-death experiences to six-hour delays.
Simon Calder, travel correspondent
When I step aboard QF10 at Heathrow airport next 25 March for the first UK-Australia passenger flight, the prospect of a flight to Perth lasting almost 16 hours will hold no fear for me. Last year, under unusual circumstances, I was incarcerated in a Boeing 787 for 17 hours.
The Virgin Atlantic Dreamliner flight for Shanghai left Heathrow after a slight delay for what should have been an overnight flight to China’s commercial capital, touching down 11 hours later. But as the plane approached the city’s Pudong airport, the captain announced it was closed because of fog. “We’re going to divert to Nanjing,” he said.
Nanjing was just 200 miles west of Shanghai, barely half-an-hour’s flight. But when we arrived in the area, controllers told the captain that the airfield was full.
You and I are constantly told that China is building airports at the rate of one an hour, and so I presumed the crew would be spoilt for choice for nearby landing strips. Instead, we were told we were heading for Beijing, 600 miles north.
Ninety minutes later, the plane touched down — two hours after we were supposed to arrive in Shanghai. Thank goodness for spare fuel.
After 13 hours airborne I imagined we would be invited to stretch our legs in the Beijing airport terminal. The hard-working cabin crew could probably have done with a break, too.
Instead, the plane was directed to a remote parking area, where we sat for another two hours, being refuelled and waiting for Shanghai’s airport to open. Another two-hour flight, with the crew’s duty times as well as we passengers approaching their limits, we finally made it to our destination. A planeful of London-bound passengers were wearily waiting for the return leg.
Naturally I have checked how likely it is that the Qantas flight may be similarly diverted.
“Fog is a relatively uncommon occurrence at Perth,” say the airport authorities. But: “Each year approximately a dozen fog events cause significant disruption to operations.” But by next year, the airport should be “Category III”, which means planes can land even in low visibility. Having looked at the alternates, notably the Royal Australian Air Force base of Learmonth, 700 miles north of Perth, I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
Julia Buckley, acting head of travel
At six-foot tall, any long haul flight in economy is a nightmare that never ends for me, but there are three that stand out. There was the Singapore to London flight on Singapore Airlines where the bulkhead seat I was in was so uncomfortable that I felt injured by it – I spent a considerable part of the flight lying on the floor trying to ease the back pain, and had to take the next two weeks off work as it had sparked off every trapped nerve, back issue and chronic pain twinge in my body. Are bulkheads more rigid than normal seats? I’m afraid I won’t be flying Singapore again to compare.
Then there was the British Airways flight to Newark that took almost nine hours because of strong headwinds, and followed up with further delays because the doors had iced over so they couldn’t get our bags out, and, being so late there were only three border staff to greet an entire plane.
But my all-time worst flight was on Alitalia, going from Buenos Aires to Milan with a colleague in 2009 – shortly before the Air France crash, luckily – otherwise it would probably have put me off flying altogether. We flew up over Brazil, and shortly after reaching the Atlantic we flew into turbulence. The plane started bouncing around, the seatbelt light was immediately illuminated, we steadied ourselves in our seats…and then one of the cabin crew took to the intercom to scream at us all to SIT DOWN!!! SIT DOWN AND BELT OURSELVES IN IMMEDIATELY!!!
Obviously everyone took this as a signal we were going to die, and as the turbulence got worse, my colleague and I hugged each other and passed on messages to our loved ones, just in case one of us survived. After what seemed like a few minutes but was probably much less, the pilot made an announcement that everything was OK, this was just bad turbulence but everything was under control, don’t panic.
To make things worse, my TV screen broke right around this point and the person in front reclined, which meant that, being tall, I literally couldn’t fit in my seat anymore. The crew said the plane was full so I spent the rest of the 13-hour flight sitting on my armrest, trying just to breathe through it.
That was the last time I flew Alitalia, and the last time I set foot on a plane without a book.
Helen Coffey, deputy head of travel
The longest flight of my life was from London to Singapore in 2015. It wasn’t any longer than normal – 13 hours in total – but it felt endless. You see, I wasn’t sure I’d be let into the country when I got there.
In my own hapless way, I’d been blissfully unaware that Singapore requires you to have six months left on your passport before it expires upon entry to the country. Five days prior to my departure date, the friend I was going to visit casually mentioned it in passing, causing me to experience the closest I’ve ever come to a heart attack – I only had two months left before expiry. And I was due to go to Amsterdam that weekend.
Twenty four hours later I turned up, stressed yet hopeful, for a hastily-booked emergency passport renewal appointment. Again my ignorance dealt me a life lesson I’ll not soon forget. Did you know you can’t get a fast-track passport issued if your old one is deemed “damaged”? And that using your passport as ID at the age of 18 and dropping it on sticky nightclub floors when drunk is pretty likely to result in said “damage”? I didn’t. My poor travel document with its rips, stains and watermarks didn’t qualify for same-day renewal. I am not ashamed to say I wept as I left the passport office.
Off I went to Amsterdam, inconsolable – until my brother-in-law discovered an interesting loophole. There’s a service offered for expats living abroad where they can get a year’s extension on their passport – a piece of paper effectively saying you’re good to go for another 12 months. A visit to Anne Frank’s house was struck off the mini-break itinerary and replaced with a trip to the British Consulate, huzzah!
I waited nervously while a kindly Scottish woman studied my dog-eared passport with a frown and went to consult her colleague on whether it was too manky to qualify for an extension. After 15 insanely tense minutes she returned to confirm that yes, it was. So I did what anyone would do. I begged. I pleaded. And, yes, I cried a little. And because she was a wonderful woman she eventually agreed to issue the letter, with the stern warning that there was every chance the Singapore authorities wouldn’t accept it; because my passport essentially had more in common with a dog turd than an official document.
Back to the 13-hour flight. I spent every second of it wide awake and gripping the armrests, my stomach a swirling pit of nauseated anxiety. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t even enjoy the smorgasbord of films tipped for next year’s Oscars. I kept visualising airport security taking my passport and extension letter, giving them one look and laughing, before frogmarching me onto the next flight home.
Thankfully that didn’t happen. After a full day spent wound up like a coiled spring, I handed over my documents, grinning maniacally and trying not to look suspicious, and the border agent handed them back and waved me through as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
I’ve taken a lot better care of my passport since then.