Diversionary tactics: why airplanes land where they land

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has written about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he examines a major travel issue – and what it means for you.

Airport closures get messy very quickly. In December and January, due to snow (the extent of which was hotly disputed), Manchester Airport was temporarily closed to arrivals and departures. Tens of thousands of passengers had ruined their travel plans.

On Thursday it was Bristol travelers turn to feel the chilly finger of fate as the West of England hub grounded flights due to wintry weather.

The experience for departing passengers is frustrating enough. Because travelers don’t depart on a jet every few minutes, 180 at a time, the terminal fills up quickly. Once the almost inevitable cancellations begin, tempers are in turmoil: Going through all the airport hassle and finally being told to collect your luggage and drive home or to a nearby hotel is a huge waste of time.

But for travelers, time is a precious commodity. All passenger flights are operated taking diversions into account and there is no risk of running out of fuel: the pilots choose an alternative destination long before the tanks are empty.

The choice of diversion airports has concerned a number of passengers who have been on planes turned away from Bristol this week. The closest suitable airports for landing an Airbus A320 or a Boeing 737 are, according to my calculations, Cardiff (27 miles) and Exeter (54 miles). These are air distances and the road trip from either airport takes over an hour; however, from a passenger perspective, they are much better than London Gatwick – 111 miles away.

Trending Spots: The flight path of an Aer Lingus plane from Barbados to Manchester when snow closed the runways in January


However, as I heard from travelers on the late flight from Malaga to Bristol, the captain decided to divert to the distant Sussex airport. I will try to explain why this seemingly irrational decision was made.

If a medical or technical emergency occurs on board, the pilots will endeavor to get the aircraft on the ground as quickly as possible. For example, in the early hours of Wednesday, Virgin Atlantic Flight 450 from Johannesburg to London Heathrow was flying over the northern Mediterranean when an engine problem suddenly altered course and landed in Barcelona.

A catalog of misfortunes followed, with long delays in finding hotels for passengers and crew and a planned “rescue flight” which itself suffered a technical failure that delayed the unfortunate travelers even longer.

One reason was that Virgin Atlantic has never flown to Barcelona and has no ground handling companies or employees there. Ideally, airlines divert to where they have resources.

As easyJet has never flown to Cardiff or Exeter, a diversion is unlikely to end well. So a better plan is to head east to Gatwick – the main base of Britain’s largest low-cost airline. Disgruntled passengers have told me promised Gatwick to Bristol buses never materialized and were eventually asked to sort themselves. But from an airline perspective, having a plane on friendly terrain is always the least bad option.

During these Manchester closures, for example, Virgin Atlantic and Ethiopian Airlines have diverted incoming flights from Orlando and Addis Ababa respectively to Heathrow – despite Liverpool Airport being just 24 miles away. Singapore Airlines had two incoming planes: one from Singapore itself, which landed at Heathrow, and the other from Houston – which flew to Paris. I suspect the airline felt they couldn’t handle both diversions at Heathrow at the same time. And Aer Lingus reversed a flight from Barbados and crossed the Irish Sea to Dublin.

Perhaps, like you, I have been distracted several times. A British Airways flight from Geneva to Heathrow was in the fast landing category when it turned over via France and flew to Paris CDG for a safe landing but an inconvenient overnight stop.

Fog is often a problem at Baden-Baden Airport near the Rhine, and on consecutive Ryanair flights from Stansted I’ve landed in Strasbourg and Basel instead – both attractive destinations in their own right and with decent terrestrial transport options, the German spa town.

Most galling was the end of an 11-hour Virgin Atlantic flight from Heathrow to Shanghai: the plane reached the east China city, only to find the airport in the fog and was first diverted to nearby Nanjing. Unfortunately, this airport was already full with other diverted planes, so the 787 continued to fly to Beijing. After two hours on the ground, the pilots flew to Shanghai and landed another two hours later after a 17-hour night shift. Secure.

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