I’m the first to admit that I take the safety of air travel for granted. I fly so much — last year I took 22 flights — that I feel like I’ve got this thing down pat. I always ensure that I’m one of the first to line up at the gate so that there’s room for my carry-on in the overhead lockers. I bring healthy nuts and fruit with me because I’ve learnt that airline food is generally not fresh or nutritious. I’ve heard the on-board safety demonstration that many times that I could basically recite it word for word and no longer bother to pay attention. And when there’s turbulence up in the air, I don’t even bat an eyelid anymore because the chance of something going wrong up in the air is so teeny tiny I don’t even really consider it.
But on my Jetstar JQ517 flight back to Melbourne from Sydney on Sunday afternoon, something did go wrong. About 20 minutes into the flight the pilot’s voice filtered through the cabin. Instead of an update on our arrival time and flight conditions, it was something else entirely:
Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve just received an indication that we need to return to Sydney so will be landing in approximately 15 minutes time.
An ‘indication’? He couldn’t have been more vague if he tried. I sighed and my first thought was: Great. We won’t be getting into Melbourne on schedule now. I’ve got dinner plans and this is kind of inconvenient.
We began to descend back into a rainy and grey Sydney and the cabin crew made their standard announcement, reminding passengers to ensure that seatbelts were buckled, tray tables were stowed and chairs weren’t reclined, but this time they finished their statement with:
We would also ask passengers to take this time to review their safety card and familiarise themselves with the location of their nearest exit.
Wait…. WHAT?! We were in an emergency situation? My eyes darted towards my nearest exit which was thankfully two rows in front, the exit row. Phew, I was close. There was a murmur in the cabin and the young teen behind me began to quiz her mother with questions we had all been thinking: ‘What’s wrong?’ and ‘What’s happening?’ and ‘Why are we turning around?’
The descent back into Sydney has got to be the longest 15 minutes of my life. It wasn’t until the wheels touched down on the runway and we screamed to a sudden halt, the vibrations seeming like they might shake the plane apart, that I saw fire trucks and other emergency vehicles rush to surround us. This is when I properly started to get a bit antsy. Was there a fire? Is something going to explode? Why would there be emergency response vehicles if this wasn’t a real possibility? This was the moment where my heart really started to race, my hands got a little bit shaky and I wanted nothing more than to get off the plane.
The doors of the plane finally opened, but instead of being an exit point for us, they became an entry point for three fully kitted-up firemen that boarded, complete with helmets, masks and high-tech instruments. They walked down the entirety of the cabin pointing a device reminiscent of a radar gun into the air which I only assumed was measuring the air. The entire cabin of passengers waited patiently but, really, we were all on the edge of our seats. Literally. We had touched down but are we safe? Get us off this plane.
Had to return to Sydney airport after takeoff, met by fire engines on runway! pic.twitter.com/rzgM9e5wgY
— Rachel Bale (@deptofwandering) June 19, 2016
The firemen must have given the all-clear because we began to roll forward towards the terminal, escorted by a multitude of emergency vehicles, with the firemen still onboard. At this point the pilot addressed his cabin full of anxious passengers for the first time since advising us we were turning around and promised to give us more information about the situation from the safety of the gate. We docked, the doors were released and I’ve never seen a plane empty faster in my life.
Fast forward four hours later and we were finally boarding a replacement plane to get us down to Melbourne after a frustrating lack of communication on behalf of Jetstar. The pilot did not address us at the gate and the ground staff provided very little concrete information about the situation. Not only had the Federal Police turned up, but so had a team of reporters, curious to discover the story, as we ourselves were. Since the airline was less than forthcoming with details about the emergency, I followed along with the latest developments on Twitter which gave me more information from external sources than I was being provided with by the airline. The poor communication to passengers who were shaken, confused and frustrated by the long delay only added another unwelcome layer to the afternoon’s misadventure. At least we were given an $8 meal voucher to keep us happy, which generously covered a coconut water at airport prices. Cheers for that.
— Brendan Grainger (@S118869) June 19, 2016
I chatted to a few reporters about my experience on board and my comments were included in this story. It wasn’t for a number of hours that we eventually found out that an electrical fault had caused smoke in the cabin. Thankfully it wasn’t anything more serious than that and it definitely could have been a lot, lot worse. When we finally touched down in Melbourne just after 8pm (almost five hours later than originally scheduled), I had never felt happier to be home.