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TEMPO 15025G35KT 0100 +SN FZFG OVC000 SNOCLO 


Disclaimer : The below narrative is based upon a true story but names have been changed, abbreviated or withheld for various reasons. Some details may have been withheld or modified to protect the privacy of individuals and organisations. Any resemblance to actual events or organisations should neither be assumed nor is implied.

Introduction
Part 1 : Mid-December
Part 2 : Cologne
Part 3 : Christmas
Part 4 : New Year
Part 5 : Togo and Algeria
Epilogue


PART 4 : New Year 


Saturday evening rolls around. I'm sitting in the Hilton lounge with the crew waiting for our Chinese food delivery. My phone beeps. It's Operations. The message is a single word. It is an expletive. I call. We have a new problem. The oil access panel latch on #1 engine appears to be damaged somehow. The panel is jammed in the open position and all efforts to close it have failed. This is potentially an AOG situation. We don't have a spare access panel down there either, so it might mean having to send one down on tomorrow's British Airways flight. Not good at all.

I talk to Keith who is the duty engineer at the aircraft and to Daryl who is the RB211 specialist. Daryl claims that he has an idea but he won't tell me what it is until he's spoken to Rolls Royce in Filton. I tell him to get back to me in an hour. I pick half-heartedly at my chow mein as the hour ticks past. Daryl calls back. Filton is ok with the proposed fix. Basically he needs Keith to remove the access panel from its hinges, then refit the panel flush with the cowling and secure it with hi-speed tape both internally and externally. If the reverser is then locked out (with corresponding performance penalty as per MEL), Rolls Royce will grant us a single sector dispatch dispensation back to maintenance base. It will then be a 2-hour fix to fit and certify a new access panel at Gatwick.

Good plan. This of course means that our poor Dusseldorf passengers will once again be rerouted via Gatwick instead of nonstop. Why does everything go pear shaped only on Dusseldorf days? Departure time approaches and I get a call from Glen, our captain tonight. Keith is having a few problems getting the panel to fit flush with the cowling. It appears the hinges may have gone slightly out of alignment (which is what probably caused the panel to jam in the first place). They are still working on it. All hands are on deck. Even the KLM engineers come over to assist. I'm getting a little antsy as the crew duty time clock is now ticking. Finally, everything is set for a 230am departure. I turn in for a few hours of kip before I have to meet the arrival.

My phone rings as I go through the staff security checkpoint on my way to the gate. It's Operations again. Glen has called up with a medical emergency inbound. A young lady appears to be having a seizure. We'll be on the ground in 22 minutes, can I set things up for the response? I take the passenger's details and start making the calls to the various agencies. Immigration calls me back about 2 minutes after I finish giving them the information.

"What is the destination of the passenger?"

I check the manifest.

"She's in transit to Dusseldorf."
"Can you confirm the date of birth?"

I check the APIS details and respond.

"Under no circumstances should the passenger be permitted to leave the aircraft without our clearance."
"What? This lady may be having a seizure. We need to get her to a hospital."
"We have reason to believe that the passenger may be intentionally falsifying medical symptoms in order to gain access to the United Kingdom. A person with a similar name and date of birth has attempted this before."

Oh great. Not only do we have a possible medical emergency on a diverted flight with a problematic engine, but we might have an asylum claim to boot. The day is quickly going downhill and it's not even 9am yet.

The aircraft is on the ground now and hustling on to stand. GAL Security, UK Border Agency, Sussex Police and Surrey EMS are all waiting with me on the jetway. The doors open and we rush on board. I make a PA announcement for all passengers to remain seated while the immigration and medical teams head towards the girl at the rear. One passenger does not like this. He stands up and blocks the paramedic from proceeding down the aisle. He's a monster of a man, at least 6'4" and built like a tree.

"What is this nonsense? Why cannot we get off?"

The paramedic tries to brush past.

"Sorry sir, I need to take a look at this lady who needs attention."

Monster Man loses his temper and shoves the paramedic. He goes sprawling into the lap of the lady across the aisle.

"I DON'T ....ING CARE ABOUT HER! LET HER DIE FOR ALL I CARE! WHY THE .... CAN'T I GET OFF THE DAMN PLANE!"

Immigration steps up and tries to calm him down.

"Sir, can I please ask you to take your seat while we sort this issue out..."

He shoves Immigration. Oh dear. Bad move. Sussex Police is next man up. He chooses to be assertive rather than polite.

"YOU! Sit down NOW if you know what's good for you."

Monster Man gives a look of pure venom but he complies. The paramedic picks up his kit and continues to the lady. I'm just waiting at the door with my head in my hands.

We finally get the go-ahead from Immigration to disembark. I ask Servisair to ensure that the Dusseldorf passengers collect transit cards and meal vouchers while disembarking. One lady in transit needs a wheelchair. Fortunately G4S has sent a motorised cart so we load her up on that and arrange for a wheelchair to meet her at Flight Connections. Sussex Police are having a few words with Monster Man. He seems a bit more contrite now. He walks up to Immigration and apologises for his behaviour. Immigration accepts good naturedly and they shake hands. Paramedics have given the girl an all clear. This seizure seems to have been genuine. The young lady has a prescription to control it but she has left it in her checked luggage. The paramedics plan to transport her to East Surrey Hospital for observation. Immigration is ok with this. They won't confirm or deny if this was the same girl involved in the last incident.

Passengers are all off now and I turn my attention to the engineers. They were swarming as soon as the aircraft stopped and have already started work on the access panel. Daryl is out supervising the troops in person. He sees me on the jetway and gives a thumbs up. Looks like the work is going as planned. We may escape with just a couple hours of delay on the southbound sector.

Boarding time. We are still missing one transit passenger. We page him while the rampers go looking for his baggage. A few minutes later, we get a call from GAL Security. Our passenger somehow walked past Flight Connections, made his way through Immigration and Customs and is now standing at the railway station still clutching his TRANSIT card. No way am I delaying this flight any more for him. James is instructed to reroute him onto flyBE and we close the doors. A quick transit stop in Dusseldorf and I'm finally back in Africa almost 2 weeks after I left on what was supposed to be an overnight trip.

EGKK 052300Z 0600/0706 10005KT 2000 -SN BKN010 TEMPO 0600/0621 0400 +SN BKN001

The New Year has sadly not brought new weather with it. Tuesday afternoon finds another nasty TAF come across the wires. It's a Dusseldorf night, so I probably should have predicted this. I check the system and see that Dave and Achilles are rostered to operate tonight. Deja vu all over again. I swing by the airport on my way home to have a chat with Dave. He isn't particularly worried yet since Dusseldorf weather is ok, but we agree to talk in the morning depending on what the 5am forecast looks like for Gatwick.

My alarm goes off at 5am and I'm just sitting down at the kitchen table when my phone rings at 502am. It is Kate at Operations calling with the news that Gatwick has shut for snow clearance. The NOTAM gives 0900z as the earliest possible opening. Using standard discretion, the crew will be legal until 1110z (and an extra hour for unforeseen circumstances once they are underway). We relay the news to Dave as soon as he is on the deck at 0553z. CFMU have accepted our flight plan for Gatwick but with a 0946z take off slot. That will give us about 25 minutes slack. Dave isn't very happy but it is the best option available. The passengers settle down for their almost 4 hour wait while the crew conduct the breakfast service. I make a post on Facebook.

"I'm having a day that so far rates approximately negative 3 on a scale of 1 to 10..."

A minute later I get a response from Mike who is the captain for the outbound flight from Gatwick later this morning.

"Does that mean I have the day off?"

I reply.

"No, it just means you're probably gonna starting your duty in a bus rather than a plane!"

How prophetic.

0707z. New NOTAM issued by Gatwick. It will be closed now till at least 1000z. Our 0946z slot disappears from the system a few minutes later. We call Dave again. Our contingency plans in the event of a Gatwick closure are to operate into Stansted and bus the passengers over. Kate files the flightplan and CFMU kicks back a 0835z departure slot. Dave breaks the news to the passengers. The reaction is mixed. They are getting out of Dusseldorf an hour earlier but they are facing a long ride around the M25 after that. I work the phones and set up the Stansted services with Servisair. 0755z. Mark has relieved Kate on the day shift. We make a final call to Dave before he pushes back to deice. He's in a mood for jokes. "I'll call you guys from Bournemouth" are his final words. I laugh. They push back at 0800z and are airborne at 0835z. ETA 0926z into Stansted.

Deicing in Dusseldorf. Pic. courtesy one of the crew


Luc lives near Stansted so he's been drafted to go out and meet the arrival. He calls me at 0915z.

"Bad news mate, they're closing Stansted."
"What? How long for?"
"No word mate, its bucketing down snow right now so it might be a bit."

I call Mark. Dave is still on London Approach frequency and he doesn't have the news from Stansted Tower yet. We start looking at options. Luton might be the best one but they are not accepting diversions without prior authorisation. Mark puts me on speakerphone and tries calling but the lines are busy. Then I hear Dave's voice crackling over the HF. He's just called a missed approach and going back into a holding pattern. Mark checks endurance with him. He has enough fuel to hold until 1115z give or take, so we have some time to play with.

Stansted has a NOTAM out now. Airport will be closed till at least 1100z. That takes them off the table. Gatwick is still out of commission. The south coast airports are also out. We've got about 20 minutes to figure out if we can get into Luton, otherwise we will need to send them up to Manchester. The lines are still busy. I call a friend who knows someone at Aviance Luton. He gives me a mobile number to try. It works! The news is grim. Luton is swamped but they will take our inbound arrival. We will need to ferry the aircraft out though as they do not have spare capacity to work a live departure. We have a deal! Hurry though, the weather is closing in on them too and he doesn't know how long they will stay open. No problem, Dave's just a few minutes away.

I relay the news to Mark. He's immediately on the horn to Dave. For the first time, I sense a bit of stress in Dave's voice. He's been on duty for almost 12 hours now in very trying conditions and I don't envy him. Still, he's doing his job and we need to do ours. I give Mark the contact at Luton to confirm the handling while I start chasing the other services. First call to UK Immigration. Their sleepy little Luton outpost is about to get hit by a bunch of seriously pissed off Africans. The buses that Luc had at Stansted won't be able to make it to Luton for another 2 hours at least, so I call James and ask him to start working on other options. We also need to get Mike's crew up to Luton somehow to get the aircraft out of there. Oh, and while we're at it, we need to cancel this morning's departure from Gatwick too. Can you also start looking for hotel rooms for the passengers please?

Mark calls. New NOTAM is out. Luton will be closing at 1030z for snow clearance. It's 1015z and Dave is somewhere over North London making his way from Essex to Bedfordshire. We are praying he makes it in time. The clock ticks excruciatingly slowly towards the half hour. Finally at 1027z my phone rings. It's Achilles.

"Hi. Dave's taxiing right now but he said to call and tell you we're on the ground. Also, do you know the handling agent 'cos the tower needs to know where to park us?"

Details are relayed. We are the last aircraft to land at Luton before the closure. The airport is quite the mess and it takes almost 30 minutes before passengers are finally off the aircraft. We have no staff at Luton and poor Aviance has only a skeleton staff to spare. Achilles and a couple of the girls go into the terminal to assist passengers. Meanwhile James has arranged some buses. He coordinates with Achilles and the first bus is on the way at 1138z with passengers and bags. Some passengers are refusing to board the bus until they get refreshment vouchers and compensation. We have absolutely no way of sorting that out at Luton. Achilles tries to explain this but they do not want to hear about it. He finally gives them 50 out of his own pocket and the second bus is also underway 15 minutes later. James will meet their arrival at Gatwick with meal vouchers. He printed enough for the entire outbound flight but only about 30 passengers showed up so we have plenty to spare.

Mike and his crew are en route, slowly inching their way around the M25 in a minibus. It takes them the better part of 3 hours but they finally get to Luton just around 2pm. The crews swap places and start prepping for the flight back. Luton has been opening and closing sporadically through the day so I am chewing my nails that we can get out ok. The problem we have is that the deicing holdover is less than 20 minutes under current conditions, so they have to wait until we have a specific takeoff slot before starting the process. The crew need to be airborne by 1710z before discretion starts kicking in. I decide that if we can't go by 1800z, we'll nightstop the crew and ferry first thing in the morning. I managed to snag enough rooms at the Ibis Luton on a 6pm cancellation deadline just in case.

The afternoon ticks by excrutiatingly slowly. Ops is monitoring the situation and sending out updates, but I'm finding it hard to concentrate on anything else in the interim. Mike is facebooking from his laptop so I get my updates directly from him anyway. Meanwhile, the CEO has summoned the operations team for a meeting to review this morning's diversion and cancellation. She is not amused by the mess. The buck stops with me as the person in charge of day-of-operations service delivery. We have a nasty few days of forecast ahead. I sign out the cash float again. I need to be on the ground in London while this stuff is going on.

At 1715z, Mike sends me a message that they are beginning to deice. They finally push and are airborne at 1734z. Flight time of just under 7 hours so we can probably escape with just a couple hours of delay on tonight's northbound. I cancel the rooms at the Ibis Luton and breathe a sigh of relief for the first time all day. Maybe I can grab a quick nap before the flight up?

Mark calls during my drive home. He's not having a fun day in Ops either poor lad. He's just seen a NOTAM about a fuel tank cleaning exercise due to begin tonight from 0030z to 0530z. This could be an issue. I'm not particularly worried though. I call our account manager at the fuel company to request an extension of deadline. His secretary tells me that he is still on Christmas leave. Uh oh. The replacement is a guy I've never dealt with before. I explain that we will need to fuel just a few minutes past the published cut-off time. He gives me bureaucratic excuses why this will not be possible. Oh dear. OH DEAR. OH &%*$!

I talk it over with our station manager. He thinks that as long as we commence fuelling before the deadline, they won't cut us off in mid stream. The fuel company confirms this to be the case. To be on the safe side, this means we have to be on the ground by 0020z in order for Mike to be on stand and hooked up by 0030z. Right now his ETA is 0028z. I call Mark back. He needs to raise Mike on HF and tell him to floor it. We need to make up 8 minutes during the flight.

I'm back at the airport just before midnight. Tower confirms that Mike is due on the deck at 0021z, so we might escape on that front. Our crew for tonight are led by Don, an imperturbable old Scotsman who began his career flying the Vickers Vanguard for BEA. The morning forecast for Gatwick is rubbish but Don isn't worried. He's seen it all in his 30,000 flying hours. The same headwinds that are holding up Mike on the way down will give us a nice push on the way up. We should have plenty of holding fuel available should the need present itself.

Mike touches down at 0021z and is on stand 4 minutes later. As it was a ferry, there are no passengers or bags to worry about so we are hooked up and pumping fuel by 0028z. Another deadline met by the skin of our teeth. However, Don notices that we have a thin sheet of ice on the wings. He calls me over and asks if we have deicing trucks available on the field. I laugh at the thought. It is 30C at midnight and the lowest recorded temperature in the history of the airport was 17C. Not really much demand for deicing services here. So how the heck did the ice get here?

Don explains. The fuel had been pumped into the tanks in -20C conditions and then allowed to sit for 5 hours while awaiting deicing at Luton. The fuel is largely contained in the wing tanks and stayed well below 0C at altitude. Mike made a steep descent to get onto the ground quickly to beat the deadline so there wasn't much time for it to warm up during the descent. Now on the ground the humidity is at 100% and condensation is forming on the wings. Due to the very low temperature of the wing surfaces, some of this condensation is freezing and thats where the icing comes from.

So what do we do now? Easy peasy. Just pump the cold fuel to the center tanks and let the warmer fuel being currently loaded go into the wing tanks. That will warm up the wing surfaces and melt the ice. And if that doesn't work, we'll just call the fire trucks to have them spray plain water on it. Simple physics, but a good example of the value of Don's experience. We're finally airborne at 0150z and I finally get a chance to catch up on my sleep. With the strong tailwinds, we should be on the ground just around 745am. I leave strict instructions not to wake me up unless we're about to crash. The girls fuss around and tuck me in for the night. Honestly, I sleep better on the aircraft than I do at home!

I stir as a ray of sunlight crosses my face. It's 815am. My mind doesn't process that for a few seconds but suddenly it strikes me. What the hell happened? We should have been on the ground 30 minutes ago. The seatbelt sign isn't even on but we appear to be flying a racetrack hold. P sees I'm awake and brings me my morning coffee made just the way I like it. That girl knows me too well. She advises that Don wants to have a word with me in the galley.

"Sleeping Beauty is awake now eh?"
"Mornin' Don! What's going on?"
"Aye laddie, got us a decision tae make. Gatwick is open but ATC are sayin' we cannae park kiz there's no stands available. Too many aircraft stranded overnight. Dae ya wanna go in anyway or dae ye wanna divert? We got fuel tae hold for another oor if we want..."
"You're the skipper Don, it's your call in the end."
"Laddie, if ya leave it tae me we're goin' tae Embra right noo so I dinnae have tae catch Easyjet home this afternoon!"
"Touche. Well, from a commercial perspective if you can get us into Gatwick safely that is always the top priority. I'll get us parking somehow."
"Aye, I thought ye'd say that. Righty ho, let the lassies here make me a nice cuppa and then we'll go land this machine."

Half an hour later, we touch down. Gatwick is eerily quiet. There are no surface movements other than us. The snow is everywhere. We shuffle off the runway and hold on Juliet short of the 170s. I'm on the phone negotiating with Apron. They are not being helpful. British Airways and Easyjet have cancelled their entire morning programs today so thats a lot of empty parking spaces lost to those airframes. The only departure on the board for the next hour is a Monarch 320 ferrying out and that stand doesn't have enough clearance for a 757. Emirates has a 777 stuck at North Terminal since last night which plans to go shortly afterwards, but that's the wrong terminal and there's a Delta 767 on approach now who is slated to go into that space.

I call Servisair. They aren't very pleased with Apron's intransigence either. They do have a possible option though. Stand 180 is not occupied but they have not been able to clear the stand of residual snow this morning. It is truly at the forgotten corner of the airport, just over 2 kms away from South Terminal overlooking the access road that leads to the Virgin Atlantic maintenance base. We can get the aircraft onto stand and the passengers off, but may have some delays offloading baggage and getting other services done. I'm fine with this as we don't have a departure till 11pm tonight. Don agrees its the best bet. Apron concedes the stand to us. It takes the Servisair dispatcher 20 minutes to drive out to set the guidance system and brush the snow off the stairs, but we're finally parked just before 930am. Another hour and we're unloaded. Welcome to London Gatwick.

On the long bus ride to the terminal, I get a call. Its Geoff from Iceland Express. He's got his inbound flight from Keflavik diverting to Luton due to the lack of available stands at Gatwick. Could I help him out with some contact numbers there? No problem. I owe Geoff bigtime for all his help at Christmas anyway. I offer to assist rounding up his passengers while he sets up the buses for them to Luton. He's grateful. I spend the next couple hours paging passengers, escorting them back through immigration, collecting their luggage and pointing them to the buses. Ironically, one of the passengers turns out to be someone I knew casually at school 15 years ago! Small world. Geoff is on his way around noon and I retire to the Hilton for a quick nap.

I wake up at 4pm and check the Gatwick departures board on my laptop. The weather isn't particularly severe but there are still dozens of cancellations. I talk to Servisair. Evidently the problem is that Gatwick is completely out of deicing fluid. They are able to service aircraft that can turnaround without deicing but no departures for any flights that must deice. Oh no. Another crisis.

I call James and brief him. We have to set a decision point to cancel so as to avoid bringing yesterday's folks out of the hotel only to cancel on them again. We pick 1830z as the deadline. That gives us just over 2 hours to find a solution. I work the phones like a maniac. I finally manage to reach someone who offers a glimmer of hope. Gatwick Airport has a "strategic reserve" of deicing fluid that requires the authorisation of the GAL Head of Airside Operations to tap into. I talk to Servisair again and get the guy's number. He has already left the office but his secretary forwards me to his mobile. I state my case. We're the only longhaul departure from Gatwick tonight. The new owners have made it a stated priority to attract new longhaul services. How can they maintain that position unless they are willing to help out longhaul operators in time of need. He listens to my pitch. He must make a few calls once he gets home but will call me back within the hour. The hour passes and no response. It strikes me that he probably doesn't have my number since the call was forwarded to him. Damn. I call Servisair again. They were just about to call me. GAL has approved my request for the fluid and asked them to pass along the news to me. Gentlemen, we have dodged another bullet.

We are the only flight in South Terminal tonight that is not cancelled, so Servisair are able to provide us with as many checkin desks as we want. With the addition of yesterday's passengers from the cancelled flight, we are actually slightly oversold so every last hand on deck is useful. We finally close with only 4 seats to spare. As the passengers head to the departure gate, James and I drive out to the aircraft to check how things are progressing. Loading is slow but steady. The only challenge is probably going to be the long drive out to the aircraft. The ramp car gets stuck in the snow as we try to head back to the terminal. After a bunch of pushing and shoving in vain, we finally decide to get some pots of hot water from the aircraft and use that to melt the snow around the wheels.

We've finally got everyone loaded up. Martin is our captain tonight and he makes a welcome aboard speech that explains why we are the only aircraft leaving Gatwick tonight and the number of strings that had to be pulled all day long to achieve this. He singles me out for praise and I get a muffled round of applause from the passengers. That's a first, even for me! We close up on time, spend a few minutes deicing and are airborne with an ETA 10 minutes early back into Africa. Now that is what I call a good day's work.

A full day in the office on Friday and I'm back to London on Friday night's flight. They have had a delivery of deicing fluid during the day so our Saturday morning turnaround goes smoothly enough. Back in Africa later in the day, I review the weather for the Dusseldorf rotation tonight. The forecast is not good (it's Dusseldorf night, why am I not surprised). The airport has been closed most of the day on Saturday but is open now. There is some precipitation forecast for the morning but nothing likely to shut down the airport again. The bigger issue is going to for passengers with connecting flights whose outbound legs are cancelled. We have a group of ten connecting to Lufthansa's Newark flight onward to Pittsburgh and another smaller group heading to Atlanta with Delta. The rest are mainly regional connections on Air Berlin. Nothing that can't be rebooked if things go sour.

Martin welcomes everyone aboard and advises them of the nasty weather at destination. A minute later, Karen comes looking for me advising that an irate passenger is demanding to see a manager. Would I be willing to deal with her? Umm.. sure.

The passenger is very upset.

"Hello ma'am, how can I help you?"
"Didn't you hear what the pilot said?
"Yes I did ma'am. He said that the flight would be 6 hours 18 minutes and gave the weather forecast for Dusseldorf."
"He said it would be snowing!!!"
"Yes that's the weather forecast unfortunately."
"Well, that is unacceptable. What are you going to do about it?"
"Sorry?"
"I didn't fly an African airline to get stuck in the snow. If I wanted it to snow I would have flown Lufthansa."
"Uh, I think it's snowing in Dusseldorf for Lufthansa as well."
"No, I flew Lufthansa in June and it was not snowing in Dusseldorf."
"That's because it was June, not because it was Lufthansa."
"Are you calling me a liar?"
"No ma'am, but I really don't know what I can do to help."
"Your airline is useless, I'll never fly with you again."

Ah well. Another satisfied customer.

Dusseldorf weather is utterly horrendous the next morning. We make it in without too much hassle but it takes over an hour to complete the offload and refuel due to the poor conditions. Another 45 minutes to deice which means we're almost 2 hours late into Gatwick. Despite that, we have a brilliant turnaround and get out a few minutes ahead of schedule. Dusseldorf is slushy in the afternoon but our pit stop goes without incident and we're back in Africa by 830pm. After spending the last 4 nights on planes, I'm craving my bed.

The reprieve is short-lived. Wednesday is another nasty weather day in the UK and Gatwick is closed most of the day. Contingency planning has become the rule rather than the exception lately. Pat and Ivan are flying us up tonight, and coincidentally are scheduled to fly us back down on Thursday night as well. Pat jokes that with the short minimum rest period, it might be easier for him to divert to Stansted and have his wife pick him up there rather than drive home from Gatwick. Not funny.

We have an interesting passenger at check-in. A local lady who has never left the country before but holds an Icelandic residence permit. She evidently had an internet relationship with an Icelandic man who flew down and married her last year. Now she is ready to make the big move. She plans to connect from our flight to Iceland Express on separate tickets. Ordinarily this would require having to go through immigration, claim her baggage, go back to check-in, etc... but when we try to explain this to her she seems quite confused by the directions - understandable for a first time traveler. I call Geoff and he agrees to accept the transfer tags as an exception. He'll even try to have a Servisair girl meet our arrival with her onward boarding pass. She's tagged up to Keflavik and sent on her way. Good deed done for the day.

We make it in to Gatwick without much hassle the next morning. How anti-climatic. I'm having breakfast at the Hilton when I get a call from Geoff. Looks like our transfer passenger missed the Servisair girl with the sign while disembarking. Ugh. She'll probably show up at Flight Connections then. An hour later there is still no sign of her at Flight Connections. Geoff has to pull her baggage off and the flight leaves without her. Around lunchtime, Geoff gets a call from his counterparts up in Kef. The husband has been hanging around arrivals and trying to track her down. He relays the story. We're beginning to get a bit worried. Gatwick isn't that large an airport and there's only a limited number of places she could have disappeared to. Then James calls. Immigration has just faxed a mugshot of an "undocumented passenger" suspected to have arrived on our flight. My heart sinks. Alas, it is true. Although immigration cannot confirm or deny for privacy reasons, it appears that our girl has destroyed her passport and claimed asylum in the UK. The whole Icelandic marriage thing was a con to simply get her a ticket to London. There is at least one broken heart in Reykjavik tonight and a handful of very disappointed airline staff in Gatwick. No good deed goes unpunished.

An uneventful return to Africa finds me spending the rest of the week on the ground. After flying over 30000 miles and 6 redeyes in the last 8 days, this is much welcomed. The respite does not last long though as it is soon time to head back to India to sort out my pending medical issues. I've decided to burn some miles for Lufthansa Business Class to get there and then return on Emirates in Economy.

Flying on Lufthansa reminds me just how unpleasant the airport experience in Africa can be for a passenger, even in a premium cabin. The line at security is horrendously long and there is no priority lane. I spend almost 90 minutes waiting to be screened. On the bright side though, the aircraft is already boarding by the time I get to the gate. The flight is absolutely packed in Economy but only 3 of us in the rear Business Class cabin of the Airbus 330. Service is pretty quick as a result. A quick dinner and I'm in dreamland before the hour is out. I wake up only 30 minutes out of Frankfurt but the lovely crew are happy to deliver me a Continental breakfast tray as I freshen up.

Frankfurt is quite the zoological experience in the early mornings but I navigate my way to the relatively new Lufthansa Arrivals Lounge. A shower and breakfast later, I feel almost human. Back airside, the Senator lounge is far less civilised. The Boeing 747 to Mumbai is pretty full and there are a bunch of folks upgraded at the gate. Fortunately, the middle seat next to me remains empty. The flight is routine. Lunch, movie, nap, supper, land.

I spend the week in India getting myself prodded, poked, cut open and stitched back up by a variety of medical and dental practitioners. Finally, its time to head back to Africa. The early morning Emirates flight is an hour late as usual, but thankfully the onward connection is also delayed so I don't have to run and aggravate my steadily recovering knee. I'm back in the office on Tuesday afternoon with a new issue on the horizon.

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