By Ben Mutzabaugh, USA TODAY
Police were called onto a diverted Air India plane in London to help keep the peace as passengers were stranded on the Boeing 777 for close to nine hours Sunday, The Times of India reports.
That long ground delay came top of about 10 hours of flying time before the Heathrow-bound flight from Mumbai diverted to Gatwick because of fog, according to the Guardian of London.
The move was especially frustrating for passengers since they were stuck on the plane at Gatwick, which is just about 45 miles from the plane’s intended (and eventual) destination of Heathrow.
Air India apparently did not allow passengers to disembark at Gatwick, preferring to keep them on the plane in the hope it could soon leave for that airport.
However, an Air India official who refused to be identified tells the BBC that a series of “creeping delays” is what eventually led to the 20-hour flight.
The BBC writes “Air India said the weather, take off slots, and crewing hours caused delays. The airline said if it had been known the delay was to be several hours, passengers would have been taken off.”
Regardless of the reason, passenger unrest over the growing delay resulted in a call to police. The London Telegraph writes “officers from Sussex Constabulary attended the scene to calm rising tension amongst those passengers who were angry at the lack of information” about when they might be able to either get off the plane or get on their way to Heathrow.
British newspaper Littlehampton Gazette writes authorities were on hand “to prevent a possible breach of the peace but said the passengers had been ‘positive about their plight.’ “
“People started to get quite restless and talk to staff at the airplane door,” another passenger — Victoria Denham — tells the BBC. “There were rumors flying around the whole cabin but I have to admit people were calm and anti-confrontational.”
Still, in BBC video from onboard the plane, one passenger with an American-sounding accent pleaded with officials to get off the plane since many customers presumably were already so close to their ultimate destinations. “This is crazy,” he can be heard saying.
Officials at Gatwick Airport say they would have offered assistance to the delayed Air India passengers, but the airline chose not to let the disembark at that airport.
“We did everything we could while they were at Gatwick. We can’t do anything with the passengers if they don’t disembark,” an unnamed Gatwick spokeswoman tells the BBC. “We went over and above what we should do. We gave them water. They didn’t want us to provide food because they used their own caterers who are at Heathrow.”
As for the series of events that led to the “creeping delays,” here’s how the various media reports suggest that played out.
First, the overnight Heathrow-bound flight diverted to Gatwick around 7:30 a.m. local time because of dense fog that had developed at Heathrow.
Then, according to the unnamed Air India official speaking to the BBC, the airline expected the weather to clear in about 90 minutes … only to find out later that the Heathrow landing slot offered to Air India to continue the flight wouldn’t come until about 1:30 p.m.
That meant the crew operating the Air India flight would exceed its maximum-allowed work time, forcing the carrier to shuttle in a new crew from Heathrow. That crew, according to India’s NDTV, got lost somewhere in or around Gatwick.
The flight finally reached Heathrow around 5:30 p.m. local time, at which point fliers apparently were given a letter from Air India containing “sincere apologies for any inconvenience,” according to a passenger quoted by AFP.