Air travel in Asia may have just a little too much excitement
By Nury Vittachi
Summer has started. The airport beckons. But I choose airlines carefully these days, having learned the hard way.
I once travelled in a rickety aircraft across Indochina to a terrifyingly bumpy landing in Laos. I staggered off the plane, stepping onto a passing chicken, and swore I would never fly Lao Aviation again.
That was when a staff member, kicking the poultry off the runway, explained that we had not arrived, but had merely made an unscheduled stop en route. I would be required to re-board in 20 minutes.
I don’t know how I managed to get back on board that nightmare plane, although it may have something to do with the fact that my companions carried me up the stairs trussed up like one of the chickens infesting the airstrip.
Air travel in Asia is filled with excitement.
For example, there was the early morning Qatar Airways flight from Manila which really woke everyone up. The captain of Flight QR645 found an innocent-looking non-labelled button on the flight deck pressed it.
Nothing happened. At least, not on the plane. But a silent signal was sent to the nearest airport saying the plane had been hijacked.
Red alert! Control tower staff at Ninoy Aquino International Airport snapped into action, dropping their adobo breakfasts, after only a few more mouthfuls.
They ordered the plane to turn around, dump 50,000 kilos of fuel into Manila Bay and land at a remote airstrip.
As the pilots obeyed, security forces led by General Angel Atutubo (only in the Philippines can tough guys bristling with guns have names like “Angel”, “Adorable” and “Baby”) raced to the airfield. As soon as the plane landed, Angel leapt on board, weapons at the ready.
At which point the pilot explained that there were no hijackers. He had merely pressed one innocent-looking button.
Everyone was very relieved, the press reported. No doubt they laughed, patted each other on the back and went back to work, cheered by the interlude. Pilots: Why not press lots of different buttons at random, and we’ll all have even more fun?
Even more disturbing was an incident over Japan at which a cockpit alarm went off so loudly that the pilots could not hear warnings from air traffic controllers. I can just imagine the conversation.
“Gosh, first-officer-san, that collision alarm is really loud.”
“Yes, pilot-san. Note how it is even drowning out the sound of air traffic controllers screaming at us about something.”
In the event, they missed the other Japan Airlines flight by 10 metres, the Mainichi Daily News reported. So that’s okay.
Reader Lincoln Lee once told me about an incident where an Asian male passenger on a flight from Beijing to Hainan apparently died or went into a coma, and crew members were unable to wake him. The pilot decided there was no alternative but to land.
But as they changed course, a lateral-thinking crew member decided on an innovative course of action. He poured beer down the unconscious man's throat.
The man revived, and the flight continued to its original destination, to the delight of passengers.
Somehow I can’t imagine such a method being listed in aircraft first aid manuals in the West. (Memo to boss: If you ever find me slumped in a coma at my desk…)