QANTAS: A runway, brakes, fire trucks and a cancelled flight
Cancelled flights are like spilt milk – not worth losing sleep over. I can say that now, since my recent experience of a delayed and then cancelled flight. I was trying to head off to Singapore and Malaysia for a couple of weeks., and then brakes and fire trucks.
Content of this Post:
The plan was to catch an early 8 am flight from Sydney to Melbourne. Spend a few hours relaxing in the Qantas First Lounge in the Victorian capital city. Then, a midday flight, QF35 on to Singapore, arriving just after 5 pm Singapore time. Perfect timing to enjoy a few of the celebrations for the Chinese Lunar New Year, I thought.
It was not to be.
We got up before sparrows fart, and were on our way to the airport by 6:30 am. The check-in queue was short. Security was a relative breeze. We had more than enough time for a coffee and a partial breakfast at the Sydney Qantas domestic business lounge. Our flight to Melbourne arrived on time, and we headed to the First Lounge for a more leisurely multi-course breakfast. Who doesn’t like salt and pepper squid at any time of the day or night?
We were also offered a spa slot for a massage or facial when we arrived at the Lounge. That’s never happened to me in Sydney! My 20 minute facial put me in a perfectly relaxed mood for the flight.
The Qantas App, texts and emails had warned that QF35, Melbourne to Singapore would be delayed by an hour. It would now be leaving at 13:30. No biggie. In the words of Dorris Day, ‘Que sera, sera’. Whatever will be, will be.
And sure enough, QF35, was on time for its delayed departure slot. Boarding was smooth. Pre-flight checks and announcements were all as usual, and the final door was closed at the scheduled 13:30.
At 13:40 we pushed back from the gate, heading for the runway.
Six minutes later, we started down the runway, with that thrill of acceleration.
Then the brakes were applied. We came to a shimmering, abrupt halt. Our stomaches and bodies were still moving forward cartoon-like with the inertia of our acceleration. Thanks for the sash seat belts!
We could hear the brakes and rubber wheels quietly screaming.
How we felt
Let’s be honest. It was scary. I’ve experienced my fair share of aborted landings, where, you descend to land, and then for whatever reason, the pilot decides to head skywards again. Sometimes you hit the tarmac and sometimes not, before the pilot takes you around to try and land again. That’s stomach-churning, but doesn’t feel as unsafe as the application of brakes did. Going from a full hurtle to brakes and a stop and wheels screaming (actual or perceived) is even scarier let me tell you.
I was wondering if we had hit something (FOD) on the runway, or suffered a tyre blow-out or bird strike. My husband had visions of those planes colliding at Haneda Airport in Japan and having 45 secs to evacuate.
Our cabin crew sprung into action staffing all the exits. That was at once reassuring, and terrifying as to what may happen next.
What happened next?
The cockpit announced that passengers and crew would await further instructions. Given that the cabin crew all went to their respective safety stations, an emergency scenario was being prepared for. The red light at the head of the aisles flashed several times, accompanied by a repeating tone, which I take it was the call for cabin crew to assume emergency positions.
We had stopped, but then the plane started moving again slowly, to take us off the runway, as the pilot explained later. It was then that we noticed the fire trucks outside. The captain came on to explain in a very efficient manner that while commencing our takeoff a warning light indicating a system malfunction had occurred on a system that should have been disabled as part of the takeoff procedure. This warning light was one of several things that required an instant discontinuation of the take-off, hence the application of breaks, and the sudden stop.
The firetrucks were there to deal with the consequences of overheated tyres caused by the breaking.
This sure is a reminder to keep your shoes on and safety belt tight until after the aircraft takes off!
By 13:57, we were off the runway, and the pilot advised that we would be heading back to the gate and that the fire-ies had checked all the tyres and all were good. The captain further explained that he would provide a fuller explanation of what happened when we got back to the gate, including what system had given the alert.
We were back at the gate by 14:05.
With our hearts and anxieties racing this all seemed to take forever, when in fact it took about 15 minutes.
The pilot’s explanation
Now before I get into that, let me just preface this by saying that, we were all a bit anxious, and that may colour my notes taken at the time, that I am working from, and also my memory. I am sure there will be readers out there with a lot more knowledge than I who will correct or provide insight into my technical explanation. If you are one of those, I welcome any correction or clarification.
The captain explained over the PA that the engine thrust reverses which are only used for landing, were showing a malfunction. This was odd since that system is meant to be closed down for takeoff, so the fact that there was an indication of malfunction when they shouldn’t have been functioning at all, was alarming, and a cause to abort the takeoff. The engineers had been called to board the aircraft and investigate the situation.
The captain assured us that the cockpit and cabin staff are all trained for these situations, so not a concern. He was very reassuring.
Cabin staff had already started to approach passengers – well at least in Business Class, to describe the process that would be undertaken to sort out their connections. Although I had no connecting flight to catch, this action, I am sure would have been very reassuring. It demonstrated that Qantas was taking the passengers situation seriously, and that it would get sorted, once they were back in the terminal and knew more about the situation.
Captain addresses Business Class passengers in the cabin
Unusually, but very reassuringly, the captain came into the Business Class cabin at 14:25 asking if anyone had questions or needed a further explanation. He then went on to explain that the flight crew are required to abandon takeoff if certain system errors appear on takeoff before the aircraft reaches 100 knots.
He explained that these A330’s are relatively old planes. Similar issues have happened before with the aircraft still being able to successfully take off. However, wisely, he is unwilling to undertake the takeoff procedure a second time only to have the same thing happen again. There was a general murmuring of approval of this view from passengers. None of us wanted to go through that braking procedure again.
He further explained that there might just be some physical contamination of the cap of the sensor which is making it malfunction.
The captain felt that he currently didn’t have enough information to make a decision. The engineers should be able to fill that information gap. But he did warn us that it may mean we have to change aircraft – which he knows is ‘not ideal’.
Really well managed
So far this whole situation had been really well managed by cabin and flight crew. Passengers actively thanked the captain who explained he had more than 30 years of pilot experience. His appearance with a healthy shock of white hair, and a commanding presence and we knew we were in the best hands. After the explanation to us, he moved on to provide the same explanation to other passengers in economy.
At 14:40, the crew via the PA explained that Qantas management had decided that we would not be proceeding with this flight on this aircraft and that the flight would be cancelled. There was a later flight (QF37 as it turned out) that was scheduled to leave at 17:05, which had plenty of seats to accommodate passengers. We were then advised that Business Class and Emerald frequent flyers should head to their respective lounges, where ground staff would re-book them and re-ticket passengers. Re-ticketing for economy passengers would be completed by ground staff once they disembarked.
Twelve minutes later at 14:52, we were off the aircraft and heading back to the Qantas First Lounge in the terminal.
This is where there was a slight but insignificant glitch. However given the high anxiety of the circumstances, it was confidence-sapping rather than the captains in cabin appearance that was confidence building.
Lounge staff miss-step
We arrived at the front desk of the lounge assuming that the lounge staff were aware of the issue. They were not. So we had to provide them with the basics of the issue, and the action we had been advised would happen.
Front desk staff quickly recovered the situation by advising that it would take a little time for the process to be worked through, and so we should move into the lounge, and have a spot of lunch, and a drink, and we would be called when re-ticketing was available. And that is exactly what happened.
There was no rush, and we happily at this point, sat down for lunch.
It is in situations like this that experience and to an extent length of service matters. The captain through his own experience handled the customer liaison and reassurance superbly. He also looked the part in terms of age and white hair and carried the assurance that you want in this kind of emergency. Actively coming out into the cabin to explain the situation, and take potential questions was the masterstroke that should be de rigueur.
There will be a full report later, of at least the successful flight, if not the aborted one.
To cut a long story short, we had a very pleasant flight from Melbourne to Singapore. But by the end, what should have been a 12-ish hour door-to-door journey with us arriving in Singapore early enough to enjoy some Lunar New Year celebrations, turned into a 20-plus hour process, with us arriving after midnight.
It’s at times like this that travelling in Business Class with the benefits of being OneWorld Emerald Status/Qantas Platinum really comes to the fore. We had massages and the full catering and comfort of the First Lounge at our disposal. That made the waiting and delay easy. For Economy passengers, the experience would not have been so pleasant.
My husband has sworn never to do an overseas trip where we don’t leave directly from Sydney. We shall see.