When flights don’t go smoothly

What is the worst flight you ever had? Or the most unusual one? Most of the flights we take are uneventful, but after some years of flying, everyone has some interesting stories to tell. Here are some of the times that my flights didn’t exactly go to plan…

1) When the plane turned around half way to Dublin

2013. This was probably my most unusual flight. We were flying from Berlin to Dublin on Germanwings, in two legs, from Berlin to Cologne/Bonn and then onwards to Dublin. We were on our second flight about half-way in between Cologne/Bonn and Dublin, when the air hostess came around asking everybody one by one whether they had anything containing chlorine in their hand luggage. Apparently somebody had smelt chlorine.

After she’d been through the whole plane and no-one had confessed to having a bottle of bleach in their handbag, the captain announced that some passengers could smell something like chlorine, and if we could all think if we perhaps had anything with chlorine in our hand luggage or check-in luggage. The air hostess then came around and asked us all again if anyone had any chlorine in their luggage. Cleaning products, hair products? she suggested helpfully. She told us it could be a fault with toilet, but they had to check just in case.

Still no luck apparently. Finally the pilot announced: “We have been unable to identify the source of the chlorine smell. As a precaution, we will be heading back to Cologne/Bonn airport so that our ground staff can check the plane. If the smell makes anyone feel unwell, please tell the cabin crew.”

We couldn’t believe our ears. We were half-way to Dublin! Why not just fly on, it would take the amount of time, or maybe less! Who flies half way and then turns around? The staff explained that as Germanwings was based in Cologne/Bonn, they preferred to head back to their base.

It was still a long way back to Cologne/Bonn airport, and now we’d been told that there was something in the air that could make us feel unwell. Neither I or my travelmate could smell the chlorine, and wondered if it had all been imagined. I did feel a bit light-headed, but that was most likely because it had been a long time since breakfast, and the air pressure on planes is lower than sea-level.

Finally we headed into land at Cologne/Bonn airport. As the plane descended, we saw out of the window that every kind of emergency vehicle known to man was down on the ground waiting for us. Ambulances, fire trucks, police cars…No doubt this was the standard emergency response, but it did feel a bit weird.

Sorry for the awful photo quality, but these were taken some time ago.

When we landed, a new set of people came through to ask everyone if they had anything containing chlorine, taking a quick glance at people’s hand luggage. They looked like detectives. After that, the captain announced that everyone should leave the plane, but leave all our hand luggage behind. We left the plane with people dressed in biohazard space suits standing at the plane doors. I looked at one of them, thinking: Good grief – what have we been breathing in for an hour?

Note the people in biohazard suits entering the plane on the right.

We were led to an enclosed area of the airport, and had to wait there for hours as the plane was searched. Paramedics were waiting there for people who said they felt ill. It was probably psychosomatic symptoms or shock, since it only very few people who said they felt unwell. The rest of us had to wait around with nothing to entertain us except people-watching and listening to the occasional announcements by the captain. We were brought water and sandwiches, which was a relief. The time ticked slowly by. We would have been in Dublin for hours by now if the flight had continued.

I found the juxtaposition of these two signs quite funny – Germanwings: Choose to drive!

After many hours, the captain finally announced that the entire plane had been searched and they still weren’t sure where the chlorine smell was coming from, so they would put us on a new plane. We all had to go back to the plane and fetch our hand luggage, then we would be taken to the next plane. The hold luggage would be moved by airport staff.

I seem to think that it was 7 hours after we had arrived at the airport that we finally left. At any rate, we arrived to Dublin in the evening, 12 hours after we had left Berlin, the whole day having been spent waiting at the airport. Best of all, when we finally arrived, my luggage didn’t. The airport staff checked and told me that it had been sent to Frankfurt by mistake, and they would deliver it to me the next day. Very strange, since my travelmate and I had checked in our bags together, and hers had arrived.

I had nothing on me except a handbag, so we had to do a bit of shopping for something clean to wear the next day, a toothbrush and some toiletries. But most of the shops were closed, since we’d arrived so late. I ended up buying clothes at a tourist shop: where the only options were some Irish green underpants and a Trinity college top!

Finally reaching Ireland

2) 10 hours of turbulence over the Atlantic

2007. The longest flight I ever did was about 35 hours: from Cape Town to Madrid (via Johannesburg) and from Madrid on to Mexico. I was attending a friend’s wedding in Mexico City. The flight from Madrid to Mexico City is 11 hours. For about 10 of these hours, we had turbulence. That means, for almost the whole flight, the seat belt sign was on, and we were not allowed to leave our seats. What’s more, the cabin crew weren’t bringing around any drinks. After some hours everyone was getting very dehydrated, and just started disobeying the seat belt sign and going to fetch drinks from the kitchen. After a while I did the same.

There were no personal movie screens on that flight, so the entertainment was shown on small screens above placed at intervals along the plane. I still remember that “The Pursuit of Happyness” was on, as watching it was the only thing that managed to keep me sane during the many long hours of turbulence.

I think the service on that airline was probably the worst I’ve encountered (Air Iberia). On the first flight, to Madrid, the air hostess actually forgot to bring me dinner. I was sitting in the front row of our section on the left, and she served the people to the right of me, glanced at the guy next to me, who was sleeping, and then disappeared. I thought she might be going to fetch more food trays, but she didn’t come back. Eventually she came back on her rounds to ask people if they wanted more bread. I pointed out that I hadn’t got my dinner yet at all, and although she was clearly surprised, instead of apologizing she said “You were asleep.” I told her I most certainly wasn’t as I’d watched her walk by, and she didn’t say anything more, but brought me my meal.

Mexico was worth the long and turbulent flight


3) An unexpected landing

2007. We were flying on a budget airline from Bangkok to Krabi, in Thailand. I was in the airplane toilet when there was suddenly a lot of turbulence and I could barely stay on the seat. I got out of the toilet as soon as possible, and sat in the nearest free seat, putting on the seat belt. When the turbulence had calmed down a bit, I went to rejoin my aunt further down the plane. Then the turbulence continued, and suddenly the plane started hurtling down at quite a rate. For several long moments, I wondered if we were going to die. I didn’t say anything to my aunt as I didn’t want to worry her.

It turned out that the plane was just landing on schedule, not plummeting to the ground. Either they had neglected to tell us that they were about to land, or they’d announced it when I was in the bathroom!

The Leaning Buddha, looking way more relaxed than I felt on our flight

4) The go-around in Palma de Mallorca

This was our last flight with Air Berlin before they went bankrupt. We miss you, Air Berlin!

2017. It was our first time going to Mallorca, where we were going to stay with a friend. The flight was uneventful, and soon it was time to land. As the plane descended, we saw Mallorca coming into view. Palm trees, roads, beaches, the airport. The ground was coming closer and closer, and we were already at the stage where you start expecting to feel the bump as the wheels hit the ground. Then out of the blue, the plane started rapidly ascending again, heading back to the sky.

There was an immediate murmur among the passengers – what was happening? No announcement was forthcoming. Was there something wrong with our plane? Had we been hijacked?

Once we were back up in the air, the pilot announced that there had been strong cross-winds, and he’d had to do a go-around. I looked this up afterwards and it’s not as uncommon as you’d imagine. He apologized for not speaking sooner but said he’d had to concentrate on the maneuver.

We had to fly around for a bit until we got a new landing slot, and as we attempted our second landing we all held our breath, but everything went fine. I think the most amazed was our friend, who had been waiting at the airport to pick us up, and tracking our flight on her phone. She’d checked the altitude and the plane was almost on the ground, then the next thing it was back up in the air and heading in the opposite direction!

On the bright side – we got some nice views of Mallorca during our fly-by!

The view during our go-around

5) My neighbour and his sick bag

I have an absolute horror of vomit, almost to phobia level. As a kid I used to pass out if anyone threw up anywhere near me. So, imagine my joy when a guy in the same row as me in the airplane suddenly threw up into his waste bag. He was on the window seat, his girlfriend was in the middle, and I was on the aisle. Thank goodness I was on the aisle! I leapt up immediately and headed down the aisle, not even sure where I was going. As I walked I decided I would look for a new seat. I walked right to the end of the plane, but there were no free seats. So reluctantly I turned around to go back up the aisle. Who should I come face to face with when I turned around, but my green-faced neighbour, holding his paper bag full of sick, heading to the bathroom. Argh.

There was no other seat, so I waited in aisle until he came back (at a safe distance away) and then reluctantly took my seat again. I couldn’t wait for the flight to be over. Luckily he didn’t throw up again.

I have no idea where I was flying on that trip, so here’s a photo of a pretty flight sunset instead. No filters!

6) Stuck in the middle

I’ve had some interesting neighbours on flights, but a pair that stands out in my memory were the two men I had to sit in between on an overnight flight. The one in the window seat wanted to get up and walk around every hour, and the one on the aisle was always fast asleep. So I had to keep waking up the one on the left to let the one on the right out. I wasn’t bold enough to suggest that they change places, and was hoping they would think of it themselves, but no luck.

7) Planes with problems before they even take off

Our plane to Cape Town was already speeding down the runway when suddenly it decelerated and then stopped. Our captain announced that there was a technical problem with the plane, and that the engineers would come to check it. We waited in the stuffy plane, with a baby screaming solidly the whole time. After some time, he said we were good to go.

Take two: speeding down the runway…aaaaand, another U-turn. The technical problem was still there. We headed back for more repairs. Baby continued screaming. I was so tired I fell asleep leaning against the (rather large and soft) person next to me (luckily he was asleep too).

Take three, and our plane made it off the ground. There were no further problems after that.

Another time, I was on a plane that actually had to be switched on and off again like a computer. They shut down the entire plane: lights, air con, everything, and then turned it back on again. Problem solved, apparently.

7) Kids behaving badly

I know kids have to get from place to place too and that they can’t be expected to be perfect passengers all the time, but there are some that push the limits of everyone’s patience…

A long time ago, on a 12 hour flight I was seated next to a kid who was pushing all the buttons on MY movie screen, and his mom didn’t even say anything. Later on he actually hit me in the face by mistake while he was busy fighting with hit his mom. Ow! I yelped, but the mom didn’t even apologize.

More recently, I’ve been seated near kids having full blown temper tantrums on the flight. The first one was a little girl who was seated directly behind me, next to her mother and sister. Her father was seated across the aisle from me. The older sister and the mom had very infectious sounding colds and were coughing and sneezing on us during the whole flight. The younger girl was running up and down the aisle, constantly getting in the way of the cabin crew and knocking people’s seats. After the crew finally said something to the parents, they got her to stay on her dad’s lap.

When it was time to land, the cabin crew told her parents she had to take her seat. She decided no, she wants to stay on dad’s lap. Of course that was not allowed, so her parents put her in her seat. What followed was blood-curdling, ear-splitting screaming for minutes on end, right behind my ears. After some time both me and the woman sitting next to me had to put our hands over our ears, because it was just too terrible. What made me angry was the way the parents were talking to her the whole flight, with no firmness at all. They could have pointed out to her that she was disturbing everybody (she was old enough to understand that) but instead it was all just cooing and pandering. No wonder she was a little nightmare.

The last temper tantrum I witnessed was on a very early morning flight. We had to get up in the middle of the night to get to the airport for this flight, and were sitting in our seats, sitting to take off. The cabin crew came around to check that people’s seat belts were fastened, and found out the little girl sitting in front of us didn’t have hers fastened. They told the mom she had to have it on, and thus commenced a long struggle to get the kid to allow her seatbelt to be fastened.

The girl screamed the plane down, full indignant rage. She refused to let her mom or the cabin crew fasten the seat belt. The mother then started arguing with the cabin crew that she knew her daughter and when she screams like this she might pass out. AT LEAST THEN SHE’LL BE QUIET, I thought, not in the best mood after only a few hours of sleep and just wanting the damn plane to take off.

The cabin crew said the plane could not take off until the kid’s seat belt was fastened. The mom continued to take her daughter’s side. In the end, the captain told the crew that if they couldn’t fasten the seatbelt the two of them would have to leave the plane, and the crew relayed the message to the mom. The seat belt then miraculously got fastened, and the kid continued to scream, but as soon as the plane started heading down the runway she got distracted and shut up. Peace at last.

8) A hard-to-open breakfast roll

I will never forget this moment on a Turkish airlines flight to Berlin. It was breakfast time and I was enjoying the wonderful breakfast (the food is very good on Turkish airlines). Only one minor problem: somehow I couldn’t open the plastic packet in which the bread roll was packed.

I pulled the packet from both sides and finally the packet tore open and the roll came shooting out like a cannonball, straight towards the cup of coffee on the tray of the man next to me. I watched in horror as it sent his coffee flying, then bounced onto the floor and rolled off under the seat in front, never to be seen again. While I apologized a thousand times and gave him my serviette to mop up the coffee on his tray, his wife was killing herself laughing.

9) Missing a connecting flight from London to Cape Town

I was nervous about the short connection flight between my flight from Berlin to London and the flight from London to Berlin. My husband phoned the airline (BA) and asked if it was enough time to change, and they said it was fine, so I booked it.

Unfortunately on the day, the flight to London was delayed for operational reasons. They were sure they’d make up the flying time, they announced cheerfully on the plane. Except then there was headwind and we lost even more time. It was very close as I arrived at Heathrow and I tried to run towards the next flight, but they told me at the entrance to the transit area that it was too late for me to make it there in time, and that I had to go to the airline counter to get a new ticket. I found out later that the plane had actually left early, so I would indeed not have made it there…

One other South African was ahead of me, and he got the last ticket that day to Cape Town. I was told that unfortunately the only flight they could offer me was the same flight the next day (24 hours later). They also highly recommended that I leave my luggage at the airport to avoid a long time locating it and then checking it in the next day. I got some kind of voucher for the bus to a hotel near the airport, and headed there, hardly able to believe that I wasn’t on my flight to Cape Town.

Without my check-in luggage, I had almost nothing with me. I was provided with some toiletries, and I bought an adapter from the hotel at a hefty price tag, because my charger didn’t fit the English plugs and I needed to tell my family that I wouldn’t be at the airport the next morning, and to cancel my plans with friends for the morning after.

My survival kit. I wore the T-shirt as a nightie and washed the top I was wearing to use again the next day (tip: you can dry damp laundry with a hairdryer)

It was still warm in Berlin, so I was dressed in a skirt, top and sandals – it was much cooler in London, I found out the next day as I put on the same outfit. I tried to spontaneously meet with someone who was also in London at the time, but we couldn’t find each other and our messages were delayed due to having foreign sim cards, so it didn’t work out. In the end I spent an enjoyable day at the Victoria and Albert museum and then went for a walk along the Thames, before heading back to the airport.

So far that’s the only time I’ve actually missed a flight, though there have been some close calls. Last time I flew via Frankfurt and the flight was also delayed, the connection time was tight and I couldn’t get my passport to work on the automatic passport control gates, so I had to stand in a very slow moving line to leave the country. As soon as I was through I sprinted towards the plane – everyone had already boarded except for me and others who’d been on the same Berlin-Frankfurt flight. Unfortunately, sometimes when booking online you can’t choose the time of your connecting flight, otherwise I would avoid such short connections.

10) The missing passport and boarding pass

I had already reached the passport control counter in Bangalore (through security), only to find that I did not have my boarding pass for the first flight. My husband had stridden off ahead of me, and was already past the control, so I called to him that I didn’t have my pass. I thought he must have it.

He said he didn’t have it either, so I excused myself from the passport control and went back out towards the check-in area to get it. First the lady said she had given it to us, but then when she looked around she found both the boarding pass and one of my passports on her desk. That was really a horrible moment, thinking I had lost my boarding pass and passport.

When I went back to the passport control, I got a different person, and he said “How come you have been here before?” as it showed up on his system that my passport has been scanned already. I had to explain the story to him.

This doesn’t beat the story of a former colleague. At an airport somewhere in Europe, the check-in staff member pushed his passport back towards him too vigorously and it somehow fell down a crack between two counters. Nobody could get it out in time, so he missed his flight. Now that’s a true travel nightmare!

It takes a while to get to and from the airport in Bangalore due to the manic traffic

11) The passenger who wouldn’t sit down

We had a man sitting in front of us on one flight who behaved very strangely. My husband thinks he was drunk. I wondered if he might have mild mental retardation because of his way of speaking. It may have been both, as he did drink two or three beers on the short flight.

He was talking loudly during the flight and moving around a lot. When the plane was still descending to land, he stood up and started trying to take his hand luggage out of the overhead compartment. Everyone was worried that all the bags would start falling out. The cabin crew was already sitting down as we were landing so they didn’t notice at first. I think he went back to his seat when the other passengers started telling him off, but I don’t remember. It was just a very strange experience.

At least he didn’t try to open the door…

So, those are the flights that stand out in my mind from the last decade of flying! What kind of unusual flights have you had?

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