There was little short of a mini-riot on board United flight 863, after the aircraft was forced to divert to Brisbane because of recent fog in Sydney.
After a 14-hour flight from San Fran, the poor suffering fools awoke somewhere over the South Pacific to learn they were unexpectedly heading for an early morning breakfast in Brisbane.
Unfortunately, this coincided with a shift end for their crew — even the extra hour to Sydney was one hour too much under their American award conditions (bring on the AWAs, I hear you say!). To compound the problem, there was already another United flight from LA that had also been diverted due to fog and whose crew was also at the end of their shift.
Again, unfortunately for the passengers (and indeed anyone wanting a bit of competition to Qantas), United does not normally fly to Brisbane, so with not a single United employee on the ground, the airline’s customer relations were, to say the least, minimal, and it was left to the long-suffering airport staff to cop what was ever-increasing agitation of the passengers as the saga rolled on.
It gets hot in those metal tubes sitting on the autumnal Brisbane tarmac. That’s right, for the first few hours, the passengers were not allowed to ‘de-plane’ because of a lack of airline staff and the Government’s rather draconian aviation security laws.
You see, while fog delays are common, what compounded the problem was that it was the first time such a diversion had occurred since the introduction of the Government’s zealous and unyielding new laws applying to liquids, aerosols and gels (LAGs) on board aircraft.
The bottom line was that because Brisbane was deemed the first port of call in Australia, the passengers were not allowed off without having to be completely screened again once they reboarded, which meant all of their expensive duty-free and other items would automatically have been confiscated because they had been allowed to disembark and mix with other passengers (so the LAGs theory goes). This, it is alleged, allows the cunning passenger to make bombs out of two parts Christian Dior, one part Johnny Walker Blue Label and a dab of Smirnoff, triggered by a Mont Blanc Ink Pen Desk Set.
And it gets worse. While good sense ultimately prevailed (or was it the audible baying of the passengers?), and a special allowance was made for passengers to surrender such deadly items to be stowed in the aircraft hold while they were allowed into the relative comfort of the transit lounge, there was the small matter of who was going to fly the plane to Sydney?
As United does not fly to Brisbane, there was not a readily available crew. The tired crews of the grounded aircraft doffed their caps, tugged on their epaulettes, straightened their tunics and hit the Hilton as is their right, while their passengers cooled their heels in the airless confines of the ageing jumbos.
Ultimately, a relief crew was scrambled up to Brisbane from Sydney (via Qantas, of course), and the first plane finally left around midday — five hours after landing. Apparently this first planeload was not given the benefit of the compromise, and had to stay on board for the entire five hours.
Comically, the same emergency crew landed in Sydney, then was all set to bolt back to Qantas Domestic Terminal for another flight to Brisbane, and transfer to Brisbane International to ferry the second plane to Sydney at around 5pm. All up, a 10-hour delay. It would have been quicker to drive to Sydney — had they been allowed off the plane, that is.
Again, good sense finally prevailed, and United was somehow able to disperse all passengers onto a series of domestic flights to Sydney. Hopefully, the feds will learn a lesson or two from this incident, which highlighted in one fell swoop the inflexibility and impracticality of much aviation security.
And they’d better hurry: fog season is well and truly upon us.