How do you end up missing three flights on one evening? Can it really happen? The simple answer to that is, yes it can, and it happened to me. So, if you suffer a similar unfortunate issue, you have my upmost support and sympathy.
In May this year, I was supposed to fly on Air India’s brand new Dreamliner Boeing 787 aircraft to promote their Business Class (and the aircraft itself). The flight was booked to go from Shanghai Pudong International Airport to New Delhi IGI Airport. From Delhi, I had a connecting flight to London with Oman Air (via a short stopover in Muscat). This was my first time to try out Air India, and the airline had specifically invited me. Since I have a British passport (Sadly, I am not Indian), so therefore I was to the understanding that I had to get a visa if I was to even transit through New Delhi, even if I had a connecting flight with a different airline. Not only I double checked, but in fact I triple checked with the senior management and even went to the board level at the airline to make sure whether I did or did not require a visa. The senior management, namely Air India’s China Managing Director at that time (whom I am not going to name in this article), told me that as a British citizen, I did not require visa if I was just transiting via New Delhi - even if my onwards journey was with a different airline.
Being the fact that she was the country Managing Director, I respected and trusted her words. In any case, I showed her the proof from the Indian Consulate General’s website, which at that time, clearly stated that British Citizens required a visa for India if they were transiting to catch another flight, even with a different airline. Effectively, I would have had to collect my luggage upon arrival at Delhi, leave the building and then check-in again for Oman Air. However, despite I showing her the request from the Indian Consulate General in Shanghai, the Air India Manager was adamant that I did not require a visa at all. Before the actual day of the flight, the Air India MD told me that the airline’s station manager would be at the check-in desk to personally greet me and take me through to the aircraft before boarding (this is normal security procedure for media every time I carry out an airline review).
Come the day of the flight, as you can imagine that I was super excited. It was a Friday evening, and my scheduled flight was at 10pm. I got to the dedicated Air India check-in counter at Shanghai Pudong Airport around two hours before departure. The first thing I noticed was that all the check-in staff were local Chinese and were wearing Chinese Eastern Airlines uniforms. Where were the Air India staff? Well, to my surprise, Air India have no native Indian check-in staff at the airport because of financial cuts, they have outsourced their check-in and ground handling to China Eastern Airlines. The airline’s duty manager (who was Indian), was nowhere to be seen either. Apparently, he was on the ground next to the aircraft and his mobile was switched off, when he should have been at the check-in counter as that’s the job of the duty-manager.
When I checked-in, I showed them my media documents, passport, flight ticket, and the necessary permission letters that I had got from the Air India management. The gentleman at the check-in counter initially gave me my boarding pass, but then he noticed that I had no transit visa for India, and therefore I was denied boarding. Both the check-in staff and I tried to get hold of the senior management at Air India, and the duty manager; however to my surprise and disappointment, nobody picked up the phone. After waiting for around a further 20 minutes, the check-in staff came back to me and told me something I did not want to hear: “The duty manager does not know who you are, and nobody briefed him that you will be on this flight. You need a transit visa for India, otherwise we cannot allow you on this flight” he said.
“Where is the duty manager? I want to talk to him” I said in my response.
The check-in staff member went on to say: “The duty manager is busy near the aircraft and he has checked all his emails, and documents, and he does not have any information about you or any other journalist to be on this flight. I’m sorry, sir, but I have no choice but to deny you boarding on this flight. Your baggage will be back with you shortly”
The sad part of all of this episode was that there was nobody who could help me - not from Air India or from China Eastern Airlines. The check-in staff were helpless. The blame goes directly on serious incompetence and lack of effective communication from the airline’s senior management and board members. I have never experienced anything like it with any other airline - ever, and trust me, I have reviewed many airlines, and all the experiences have been positive. This was not a good first for sure.
I have friends who are working as pilots and cabin crew for Air India, and they all do a great job. But the root cause of all the ills of any company come from the top to the bottom. The fact that the senior management of a national flag carrier of one of the largest democracies in the world can easily get away with this is a complete shambles. Surely an embarrassment as well. The fact that no one from the airline apologised is also a serious disappointed. It is just diabolical. I understand that such incidents can and do happen with other airlines. But when you are trying your best to help to improve and sell the brand image of an airline that is already suffering from financial problems and countless number of embarrassing incidents that have let the company down in the public limelight, it does no justice whatsoever for them to make mistakes like these. They simply cannot afford to do this. Does it let the image of the airline down? Yes, it does. Air India used to be one of the best airlines in the world when the Tata group owned in back in the 1960s/70s, and it was one of the first in the world to operate a jet aircraft. Those glory days are long gone. The airline’s brand mascot is a Maharajah, and their brand motto is “Your Palace in the Sky”. Well, I’m not sure whether it is still a palace in the sky or not because I’ve never tried their service, but they have definitely let the maharajah down. Either that or he’s cursed.
At this point it must have been around an 8.50pm, about an hour after I initially arrived to check in. Exceedingly frustrated, hot, humid, dejected and somewhat panicked, I collected my baggage and thought of plan B. The only thoughts I had in mind were that I had to make it to London no matter what. The sad thing was that not only did I miss the Air India flight, but in the process, I also missed the connecting Oman Air flight from Delhi to London.
It was nearly 9pm by now. My only hope was to purchase another flight. But, to make matters worse, most of the airline ticketing desks were closed, my laptop was operating on only around 2% battery (and the charger was in the baggage somewhere, which I didn’t have time to find), my mobile phone’s battery was low, too, and there was VPN available (Google, YouTube, Gmail, Hotmail are all blocked in China and so you need a VPN).
My only hope left was to run to the Business Centre (which closed at 9.30pm) and pray that I could catch one of the last remaining flights of the night to London - Aeroflot, Air France, Lufthansa, Emirates, Qatar, Etihad, Turkish all had flights going to London via their respective hubs. The Air India desks were at aisle G, and the Business Centre was at A, and being the large airport it is, Pudong Airport’s Terminal 2 departures all is HUGE to say the least…you can imagine a helpless chap with three pieces of baggage, laptop and cameras, running –sweat pouring all over – at breakneck speed from one part of the terminal to the other!
While making full use of the exceeding slow internet at the Business Centre, I used my Barclaycard Visa to purchase a one-way economy class ticket with an Etihad Airways flight the same evening for US$750. By the time I bought the ticket, it was 9.20pm and the Etihad flight check-in closed an hour before the flight at 10.30pm. Great! I would get home on time and enjoy a nice bubbly on the plane after all what I went through! What a relief…so I had thought!
When I checked-in to the Etihad Airways flight, to my shock the staff there could not find my ticket reference number. I was gobsmacked. Even with my passport and date of birth they could not locate any information on their computers. Even worse was that I couldn’t access the Gmail address which I gave when I booked the ticket (as pointed earlier that Gmail is blocked in China and I had no VPN either). In the heat of the moment, I forgot to take a note of the reference number. Therefore, I was denied boarding on the Etihad Airways flight, too. Utterly dejected, angry, dazed and just exhausted, I literally begged the Etihad Airways staff to look for the flight ticket reference, but at no avail.
For the next ten minutes, I just sat on the floor on the airport terminal, and pondered over plan C and tried to keep positive. The only option left now was to book into a hotel and book another flight early the following morning, as well as apply for the refunds from Oman Air and Etihad Airways. I had no choice but to spend more money and stay the night at the Shanghai Airport Hotel (located between Terminals 1 and 2…that cost me around US$70 for one night). When I got to the hotel, I finally manage to charge the batteries of all my devices, and was able to access the VPN to book another flight. When I accessed the Gmail account, I saw that I had indeed received an email from Etihad Airways confirming my flight ticket – it may have been too close to the flight for the system to send the data to the check-in counter.
I managed to purchase a one-way Virgin Atlantic flight for US$650. Altogether, I managed to lose over US$2,000 that night (two flight purchases, hotel for one night and the cost of my connecting missed flights with Oman Air). Imagine if I had a family with two kids, for example…no doubt it would have been a VERY expensive and exhausting evening (thanks to the blunders from Air India and Etihad Airways).
After this traumatic experience, I was even prepared to fly cargo if I had to. The following morning, I arrived at the airport with plenty of time in hand, grabbed a hot Starbucks cappuccino and was prepared for the worst. Thankfully, I managed to check-in without any issues and enjoy a lovely flight from seat 44 at the back of an ageing Airbus A340 belonging to Virgin Atlantic. Interestingly, our Virgin Atlantic flight arrived an hour before the Oman Air flight that I was due to arrive on originally. I hope I never get to experience anything like this again. As for flying with Air India? Well…this was supposed to be my first time and I hope that the next time I try to fly with them, I really feel as if I am in a palace in the sky! I can understand the mistake made by Etihad Airways as that is more than likely to be a technical error, but there is no excuse for Air India, where human errors from the senior management have resulted in a complete failure of communication.
On final approach into Hong Kong International Airport's runway 25 right, our brand new Boeing 747-8i had just passed Tin Liu Village (Ma Wan Park) and Tai Lung when we were challenged head on by a powerboat (as seen in the photo below). The giant whale's landing speed of around 160 knots (184mph) was just a bit too much for the poor soul (who must have been going at around 90 mph).
Ready for action...another long haul flight. This time on-board the Boeing 747-8i - longest aircraft in the world.
At 76.25 meters, the Boeing 747-8 is officially the world's longest aircraft (cargo or passenger usage). It can accommodate a maximum of 605 passengers (in an all economy class configuration), or around 400 passengers (in a 3 or 4 class configuration). The freighter version of the aircraft has a cargo capacity of 30,177 cu ft (854.5 m3). 53 aircraft are currently in service, with 36 of those being freighter versions. Currently, Lufthansa German Airlines is the ONLY two airline that operates the passenger version with 9 aircraft in active service, and a further 10 on order. It was a pleasure to be on this rare gem, nick-named the 'Queen of the Skies'. There is talk that the current Boeing 747 aircraft used by the President of the United States of America, nick-named Air Force One, will be replaced with the Boeing 747-8i in the near future.
The aircraft I flew on today entered service on the 26th of July 2013 (aircraft Reg: D-ABYK), and this was it's 5th flight since entering service with Lufthansa. No wonder why the interior had a smell like that of a brand new Mercedes car!
On the morning of the 6th of July 2013 just past 11.28am local time, a Boeing 777-200ER belonging to South Korea's Asiana Airlines (flight number OZ214) carrying 307 passengers and crew, crash landed while on approach onto San Francisco International Airport's Runway 28L.
Whenever a plane crash happens, second guessing and pure rumors or any other speculation does no good and is of no value to anyone - even to professional journalists who work for Broadsheets - trust me on that one!. It can be extremely irritating (and distressing for passengers relatives), when people on the likes of Twitter, Facebook, PPRune, Airliners.net, Jetphotos.net and Fox News' etc. go about with their so called 'aviation experts', spewing historical events and their own takes on what could have gone wrong. I prefer to wait until either the wreckage is examined/investigation in complete or the NTSB is notified. It's one of the reasons that I don't turn on the TV at these times but rely on concrete factual information for journalists from informed media such as FT.com and the BBC.
The weather was reported as very good; the latest METAR reported light wind, 10 miles (16 km) visibility, with no precipitation, and no forecast or reports of wind shear. The pilots performed a visual approach assisted by the runway's precision approach path indicator (PAPI).
The landing gear and then the tail struck the seawall that projects into San Francisco Bay. Both engines and the tail section separated from the aircraft. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) noted that the main landing gear, the first part of the aircraft to hit the seawall, "separated cleanly from [the] aircraft as designed". The vertical and both horizontal stabilizers fell on the runway before the threshold.
The remainder of the fuselage and wings rotated (yawed) counter-clockwise 330 degrees as it slid westward. Video showed it pivoting about a wing and the nose while sharply inclined to the ground. It came to rest to the left of the runway, 2,400 feet (730 m) from the initial point of impact at the seawall.
Out of the 291 passengers and 16 crew, sadly 3 passengers died, and 181 passengers suffered serious but non-fatal injuries. Out of the three who lost their lives, two were named as Ms. Ye Mengyuan and Ms. Wang Linjia, both Chinese nationals, and both 16-year-old middle school students from China's eastern Zhejiang province. They were seated at the rear of the plane and their bodies were found on the tarmac. The third passenger died of her injuries several days later at hospital. At the request of her immediate family, her name and the extent of her injuries were not published. Among the injured were three flight attendants who were thrown onto the runway while still strapped in their seats when the tail section broke off after striking the seawall short of the runway.
Now, on that note a point about the photos of the crash and the relatives going around on Twitter etc. (especially the UK Daily Mail, and other tabloids), that can be so ridiculous. OK, photographers may have to get pics of the grieving families to keep their Editors happy ..BUT I don't want to OR have to look at them. It's just sick. RIP to those who have died. You can tell when the stupidity at The UK Daily Mail has reached new heights when they write false stories in order to get their readership high. The Editor has been trying to pretend that his rag is NOT a tabloid (heaven forbid) by spilling stories over the gutter in an effort to win a design competition at his local school. He should give up & just use the tabloid tricks that were developed by experts.
The Boeing 777, like ALL American built aircraft (except the 787 Deamliner - now dubbed the 'nightmareliner' because of its high number of faults) is a very reliable and strong aircraft- the Boeing 777s are the aviation's equivalent of the John Deer Tractor, you can throw anything at them and not a single whisker in sight will damage them.
This was the Boeing 777's first fatal accident, and second crash (previous: British Airways Flight 38 in 2008), and third hull loss since the Boeing 777 began operating commercially in 1995.
It's a well known fact in the industry that around 95% of aircraft crashes happen 8 nautical miles either side of the airport below 3000 feet. 95% of aircraft fires happen in the first two hours. The fix is, when realizing it is uncontrollable, dive for the ground before the wing burns through. Record aloft is below 25 mins.
Below is video animation showing the comparison between the actual flight path taken by flight OZ214 into San Francisco's Runway 28L, and what the correct flight path should have looked like.
The video is a testament to a brilliantly-built aircraft; designed and modelled entirely on computers in the early 1990s. The video shows what happens if you can use the fuselage to dissipate the energy, then the landing gear and the engines shear off at extreme speed, as designed. Unlike steel, aluminium doesn't produce sparks like steel does.
An experienced Airline pilot with over 28 years in the cockpit, who did not wish to be named, told me (I quote):
'It's long been the Airbus philosophy that "if the aircraft is not doing what you want (for ANY reason) disconnect the automatics and fly it manually at once". That works well in airlines where you have a wealth of basic Visual Flight Rules (VFR) flying skills to fall-back on. Sadly, with the death of general aviation around the world, there are many countries where pilots don't have that background. It's why Airbus has increased the endorsement program from 9 simulators to 13. Airbus now teaches people to fly each model visually with all systems working normally (especially after what happened with the Air France 447 crash). Who would have thought it would come to this? Many of us. Predicting that, one day, each pilot would have to pass a test of knowledge to survive. At Aviation Theory Centre in the early 90s I ran a series of lectures explaining that our books taught "To Pass The Test - Not Just The Exam". Sadly most theory centres just teach the syllabus and no more.'
Another airline pilot gave me this account of an aircraft coming in too LOW into Dubai Airport a few days after the Asiana Airlines crash happened (I won't name the pilot who gave me this credible report):
'Blood ran cold today. 28 years of flying and never heard this from an APProach controller:
APP: "XXXXX (an indian carrier) Are you too low? I have you at 800 feet!" [now, he usually transfers to TWR at about 5 miles (1500 feet) so there is no reason to be at that level on Approach.]
XXXX: after long silence "XXXX going around"
APP: "XXXX are you climbing? I still have you below radar lowest safe!"
XXXX: " We are climbing through 1,500, can we make a visual circuit?" (this is how Gulf Air crashed an A320 and the clever controller decided to take it out of his hands...)
APP: "Climb to 4000 feet and make left turn to 030." (Thereby saving the day, he never even answered the query for a visual approach.)
How, you ask? Well the QNH was 994mb and 500 feet lower than the std of 1013. Setting the altimeter from high (1013) to a low number winds OFF altitude. Old Pilots say: "High to Low LOOKOUT below!" I bet the XXXX boys still had 1013mb set'.
The below presentation, ('Children of Magenta'), provides a wealth of experience and advice for pilots of new-generation airliners (especially 787, A380, and A350). When in doubt: Disconnect automation, fall back on your flying skills and FLY THE AIRCRAFT.
HOWEVER, the problem is: what if you a crew who have no experience in hand-flying aircraft, no raw flying experience to fall back-on (as those Asiana 214, and Air France 447 pilots)?
One of my mates, an experienced Captain for Emirates, says: 'Always make sure YOU are flying the aeroplane, and that IT'S not flying you. Sadly, this brilliant instructor has passed away. He'd be rolling in his grave if he knew that there are thousands of pilots currently flying airliners who have never had such a background.'.
Flying is not the same as it just to be back in the 1980s and even early 1990s- it's not as glamorous as it used to be...and even more importantly safety is plummeting these days. Did you know Singapore have fired ALL their expats since this accident at SFO? The week before this Asiana crash, a Singapore Airlines B777 did a go around on the same runway after doing the exact same thing…with a 777 full of passengers. That - in the 90s - would have been inconceivable!.
When you have 300 passengers behind you, there is no room for failure, and it's dangerous to just depend on the Autopilot. No doubt, the Asiana Airlines crew were invited for a not-so polite chat over a tea session in Washington...no biscuits though.
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