Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Quantas flight QF32 (Yes, I was on it)

The next morning I got up at the crack of dawn (which is actually pretty early in Singapore since it was approaching summer and is pretty close to the equator) to take the train to the airport. After another series of negotiations at check-in to avoid the massive baggage fee I arrived at the gate with plenty of time to spare. I should probably note that the plane that I had taken from London, and would now take again to Singapore, was the Airbus A380, Airbus’s newest and biggest plane, with a capacity of almost 500 people (it had two floors-enough said). Despite its size, boarding didn’t take that much longer than with any other plane, although I’ll admit that I was pretty dubious when I first saw the number of the people waiting by my gate when I arrived.

The first part of the flight went fine, and it wasn’t until there was a large bump in the middle of my Inception movie, quickly followed by another smaller one, that anyone realized that something was wrong. After a few seconds of people looking around in confusion someone to my left (I was in the middle row of seats toward the back of the plane) looked out their window and started drawing attention to it. From my vantage point all I could see were a bunch of people to my left looking out their window and jabbering to each other. A flight attendant came over, looked worried and then want to the back to call the pilot. Shortly thereafter the pilot came on the intercom and said that we had just lost power in one of the engine on the left wing (there were two on each wing) but that there was nothing to worry about and they were aware of the situation. He came on a few minutes later to say that they were running a series of diagnostic tests on the engine to determine the extent of the damage but that there were 5 pilots on board so everything was under control. This sounded good to me so I went back to my movie while the people on my left continued to jabber and gesture to each other in a primal state of excitement.

After about 5 minutes into the tests the pilot came back on to say that the damage was severe enough that we had to turn back, but would have to dump fuel in order to land safely. We spent about 45 minutes dumping fuel (I don’t know where, and am still kind of curious as to what happens to the dumped fuel) en route back to Singapore. Throughout this time the pilot came on the intercom to reassure people of their safety and to tell us that they had done multiple simulations and practice drills of this sort (with multiple engine fails instead of just one). He also kept telling us to make sure not turn on our phones or other communications devices, and to this day I’m not sure whether this was out of concern for the plane’s navigation systems or of trying to keep the press out of it until the plane landed at least (I later learned that there were a number of people that called home, and even one idiot that was twittering about it).

Someone to my left recorded the pilot's announcement:

The landing went fine, although you could feel the tension in the air inside the cabin right before we touched down and there was a lot of applause after we came to a stop. Then came the fun part. Apparently one of the engines on the left wing (not to broken one) refused to shut down, which became slightly risky when one of the passengers to my left noticed the puddle of clear liquid that was developing under us. When it was sighted that this liquid was coming from the plane, and that the broken engine was now emitting smoke (hard to see when traveling at high speeds), the steward in our back cabin got on the phone to the pilot. The hurried and worried looks out the window and the excited whispers of the passengers continued for a few minutes before the fire department arrived and was able to spray foam on the fuel and water into the still-running engine to force it off. Throughout this time the plane was getting steadily hotter and more stifling since all the systems had been shut down in an effort to shut off the misbehaving engine and minimize the risk of fire/explosion.

The landing and the smoking wing.

We sat in the plane for almost 2 hours as the plane was evacuated one row at a time. Of course the first and business class passengers were evacuated first, presumably along with their caviar and whatever else they get that the “lower classes” don’t see, and then the rest of the plane got off, starting from the front. Since I was about 10 rows from the back of the plane, I was among the last of those off the plane, and the only upside to this was that halfway through the evacuation the order to “leave all personal baggage besides passports and wallets” was dropped and we were allowed to take out belongings with us. This entire process took a while, and had there been a need for us to get off quickly I hope that it would have went fast since at that rate I doubt I would have gotten off a sinking plane before it touched the ocean floor. Part of the problem was that there was only one mobile staircase available to evacuate people, and the flight crew seemed to be very worried about people tripping down said staircase and suing Quantas. Despite their worries, everyone got off safely and we were bused back to the terminal.

One of the few passengers who talked with the media and didn't over-dramatize it:

Video of the tv coverage as we saw it. The details are quite right but you get the picture:

There we were greeted by water, snacks, some paperwork, and more waiting. I spent the next two hours wandering around the terminal looking for “real” food and watching the news break on CNN. It was kind of a shock for all of us to see since the extent of the damage didn’t look nearly as impressive from the inside as the images that we saw plastered across the television.

Right around the point when I was considering going to find another “real meal” instead of the crackers and cookies that they kept trying to give me, we were finally given the news that we would be going to a hotel for the night and would be put onto another flight in the morning. After more waiting in line (yet again, first and business classes went first) we were bussed to the hotel and given vouchers for dinner and breakfast. After a quick look around the hotel room I went down to dinner.

Video of the hotel room to come when I get an internet connection that allows me to upload video (suffice it to say that it was a pretty nice 3-4 star hotel).
Both the hotel and the meals were much nicer than anything that I had experienced as of yet on the Watson, and definitely beat the hostel and kebab/gyro sandwich that awaited me in Sydney. The dinner was a buffet (my favorite), which meant that I was sure to leave the table satisfied and not bemoaning small portions. After dinner I went to explore the city with one of the passengers that I had befriended and we spent the rest of the night meandering around the city, and hanging out on the hotel terrace. We finally decided to call it a night around two in the morning, a decision that I regretted as I woke up 4 hours later for the buffet breakfast before catching the private shuttle to the airport at 7am.

At the airport I re-checked onto my flight, and boarded the nowhere-near-as-nice plane that had been substituted by Quantas for the A-380s that it had grounded. My first impression of the plane on entry was disappointment, a feeling that deepened as I sat in my seat and saw that the personal television was smaller, the seat more cramped, the fabric wasn’t as nice, the table wasn’t as well designed, and the bathrooms weren’t anywhere close to as spacious-feeling as on the A-380. However, all the engines functioned normally and the flight to Sydney passed without further incident.

So all-in-all I have no complaints from this entire experience beside a vague sense of injustice about the treatment afforded to first-class vs. normal passengers. I spent a night in a very nice hotel, had two big buffet meals, got an extra night to explore Singapore, made friends with a very attractive and interesting fellow passenger, and got to my destination only 24 hours late. Quantas handled the situation very well from my observations, and although I haven’t received anything yet, I’m told that there is some sort of compensationpipeline.

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