How does a plane get lost?

It’s hard to believe a major commercial airline could go 800km off course and land in a completely different country to the one expected by passengers, but it happened two weeks ago.

A British Airways (BA) flight which was flying from London to Dusseldorf Germany ended up landing at Edinburgh Airport in Scotland instead.

The pilot thought he was going to the right place and the mistake was only picked up when he asked the passengers for a show of hands of who expected to land in Germany. Turns out the whole planeload of people except the pilot and cabin crew did.

When the pilot welcomed the passengers to Edinburgh, they thought he was joking.

A regular traveller between Dusseldorf and London asked the cabin crew if they were serious.

She told the BBC: “The pilot said he had no idea how it had happened. He said it had never happened before and that the crew was trying to work out what we could do.”

But how could this happen?

Flight BA3271 was being operated on behalf of BA by WDL Aviation – a German charter operator that BA said filed incorrect the incorrect flight plan which the pilot followed.

“We are working with WDL Aviation, who operated this flight on behalf of British Airways, to establish why the incorrect flight plan was filed,” said British Airways.

“We have apologised to customers for this interruption to their journey and will be contacting them all individually.”

Since then, BA and WDL Aviation have kept very quiet.

So, why wasn’t BA operating the flight?

The Independent conducted an investigation that found BA doesn’t have enough planes in its fleet to operate its schedule, so it ‘wet-leases’ planes from other airlines, including pilots and crew.

It’s a standard operating procedure and BA assured The Independent that passengers were aware of this arrangement.

How did BA3217 end up in the wrong country?

After reviewing the flight pattern for this particular plane, the investigator discovered that for the week prior it had been almost exclusively flying between London and Germany – mostly Dusseldorf and Frankfurt. The day before this misadventure, it flew Dusseldorf-London City-Edinburgh-London City-Dusseldorf, and if someone in WDL Aviation head office must have picked up the wrong flying program and repeated this flight pattern.

Had this been a BA plane, the mistake would most likely have been noticed, but as it was with a contractor, it was overlooked.

According to The Independent:

“Ground staff boarding the flight would have checked people through the departure gate and onto the flight, happily assuming it was Dusseldorf-bound.

“The dispatcher will have handed the captain a manifest listing Dusseldorf as the destination. But all of us who deal with routine paperwork know that you can sometimes easily overlook details – apparently including where to point the plane.

“On that subject: WDL will have filed a flight plan for Edinburgh with air-traffic controllers, who do not have time to check: “Are you really sure that’s where you want to go?”

How did the passengers not pick up the problem?

The investigator speculates that only a flight number and not the destination was called out at the departure gate and was disturbed that anyone sitting in a window seat didn’t realise they were going in the wrong direction.

And with 30,000 flight plans going through The European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol) each day, it’s just as difficult to think this wouldn’t happen more often. But it doesn’t.

The good news is, this is a freak occurrence that is most certainly due to the wet-leasing set up. Usually there are multiple opportunities for this type of error to be spotted. Rarely (but it has been known to happen) a plane may land in the right country but at the wrong airport.

The bad news is that with the problems surrounding the Boeing 737 Max planes, there may be more wet-leasing in the coming months, until the problems are sorted out.

So be vigilant at the airport and in the sky and hopefully you’ll land in the right country.

Has anything like this ever happened to you?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.


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