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Diversionary tactics: why planes end up where they do

Diversionary tactics: why planes end up where they do

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.

Airport closures get messy very quickly. In December and January, Manchester airport temporarily shut to arrivals and departures because of snow (the extent of which was hotly disputed). Tens of thousands of passengers had their travel plans wrecked.

On Thursday it was the turn of Bristol travellers to feel the frosty finger of fate when the West of England hub grounded flights due to wintry weather.

The experience for departing passengers is frustrating enough. With travellers not leaving on a jet plane every few minutes, 180 at a time, the terminal quickly fills. Once the almost-inevitable cancellations begin, tempers fray: going through all the airport stress and finally being told to collect your baggage and head home or to a nearby hotel is a huge waste of time.

But for inbound travellers, time is at a premium. All passenger flights are conducted with diversions in mind, and there is no danger of running out of fuel: pilots will choose an alternative destination well before the tanks run dry.

The choice of diversionary airports has exercised a number of passengers who were on planes turned away from Bristol this week. The closest suitable airports for landing an Airbus A320 or Boeing 737 are, I calculate, Cardiff (27 miles) and Exeter (54 miles). These are air distances, and the road journey from both airports will be over an hour; from a passenger’s perspective, though, they are much better than London Gatwick – 111 miles away.

Going places: the flight path of an Aer Lingus plane from Barbados to Manchester when snow closed the runways in January


Yet as I have heard from travellers on the late flight from Malaga to Bristol, the captain chose to divert to the distant Sussex airport. I shall try to explain why this apparently irrational decision was made.

When there is a medical or technical emergency on board, then the pilots will aim to get the plane on the ground as soon as possible. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, for example, Virgin Atlantic flight 450 from Johannesburg to London Heathrow was over the northern Mediterranean when it suddenly changed course because of an engine issue and landed at…

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