Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.
You could argue that the passengers who boarded Qantas flight 1 from Sydney to London Heathrow on 22 December have enjoyed a unique pre-Christmas bonus: an all-expenses-paid 48-hour city break in Baku, Azerbaijan. The Azeri capital is an astonishing Bolshevism-to-bling city – a former Soviet outpost on the Caspian Sea with a fascinating Old City and dramatic new architecture.
The 400 or so passengers will, I hope, enjoy exploring the lowest-lying capital in the world (100ft below ocean level) and perhaps visit Baku’s most notable Shia mosque, Bibi Heybet, at its clifftop location south of the city centre.
But I fear they will be spending most of their time inside their rooms in the Marriott Hotel, tracking the progress of the rescue jet that is flying 8,200 miles to collect them and make the final 2,500-mile journey to London. They may also be reflecting on how, after three years in which Covid has made seeing family in distant lands so difficult, the travel gods have conspired to thwart their plans.
Over Georgia in the early hours of Friday morning, a faulty sensor indicated smoke in a cargo hold. The plane turned back over Georgia and flew 400 miles to the Azeri capital, where it landed safely. Baku airport was the closest in the region with the facilities to handle the world’s biggest passenger plane.
According to the latest prediction from the airline on Christmas Eve afternoon, they should take off soon after 5am for the five-hour final leg of their marathon journey, arriving two days late.
Heathrow at dawn on 25 December is not an especially auspicious place and time. The annual shutdown in the UK – which does not seem to take place elsewhere in Europe – means there is very limited onward transport.
I hope the Australian airline has been arranging some options during the hiatus. And I admire the resources that have enabled Qantas to provide a plane at such short notice. Even with post-pandemic aviation at full stretch, the carrier has “operational spares” on standby over the peak Christmas and New Year season “to help recover customers in the event of an unexpected disruption”.
Having planes, pilots and…