A passenger on a British Airways flight to Malaga, which turned back to London City airport after just seven minutes, has told of “a terrible smell of burning” in the cabin – and of the cabin crew being “clearly in distress”.
As the aircraft landed safely, emergency vehicles “chased the plane down the runway”.
Flight BA8487 took off from London City airport to Malaga a few minutes late at 1.21pm on Sunday 3 September. The aircraft was an 11-year-old Embraer E190 – part of the British Airways CityFlyer fleet, a dedicated unit based at the Docklands airport.
On board the almost-full 98-seat jet was property manager Justine Walker, 52, and her 78-year-old mother, both from Beckenham in south-east London. They were sitting in row 9.
“We had barely taken off when there was a terrible smell of burning,” said Ms Walker.
“The pilot announced he had ‘a very important announcement’ to make and urged us to listen carefully. He then said: ‘As you have probably noticed there has been smell of burning, this is down to a fault with the air-conditioning and we are going to have to make an emergency landing in the next 10 minutes.’
“This was followed by alarms and a recorded message to tell us to remove our shoes and get in the brace position. The message was repeated.
“The cabin crew were clearly in distress as they could barely speak over the public-address system. There was no sight of them to calm any passengers down.”
The aircraft had flown no higher than 3,600 feet when it turned back over the village of Wrotham in Kent. It flew over the south-east of the capital and the City of London and landed back at its starting point 16 minutes after take-off. As well as fire engines, police vehicles and ambulances attended.
A passenger on another British Airways flight waiting to depart said that when the aircraft made the emergency landing, “fire service vehicles chased the plane down the runway”.
Ms Walker said: “The stewardess then came on and said we had to leave the aircraft as quickly as possible and to leave all hand luggage behind. She appeared to be in tears at this point. Her voice was shaking with emotion.”
The passengers left the aircraft via the stairs rather than emergency chutes. They boarded a bus back to the terminal where they were met by British Airways ground staff.
“The staff were very helpful, asking who needed medical attention, handing out water and checking if everyone was OK,” Ms Walker said.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has two categories of inflight emergency.
The first is signified by “Mayday” and is used when “threatened by serious and/or imminent danger and of requiring immediate assistance”.
The second is indicated by “Pan” and is “a condition concerning the safety of an aircraft or other vehicle, or of some person on board or within sight, but which does not require immediate assistance”.
The Independent understands the pilots of BA8487 declared a Pan.
The flight was cancelled. Ms Walker and her mother were given the choice of a replacement flight from Gatwick later the same day or an overnight stay at a hotel at London City and a flight to Malaga the following day. They chose the latter.
“We felt OK to fly again,” Ms Walker said. “Although this was a terrible experience, we told ourselves that it is unlikely to ever happen again as we don’t know of anyone who has been through an experience like this.
“We are both quite frequent fliers – this was my 13th flight this year.”
She said: “It really was an awful experience and the worst bit was the pilot and cabin crew seemingly in distress.”
A British Airways spokesperson said: “The aircraft returned to London City as a precaution due to a technical issue and landed safely.
“We apologise for any upset caused, but the safety of our customers and colleagues is always our top priority.”
Passengers waiting for the aircraft in the Spanish airport for the return service to London were found alternative flights.
The aircraft on the ground at London City was inspected and resumed service the following morning with a routine flight from London City to Belfast. It has flown normally since then.
Three other British Airways flights from London recently returned to base over the same weekend.
The trio, all from Heathrow, had turned back further into their journeys due to less urgent technical problems.