A Rude Sahara Sandstorm Diversion That Went Viral

By William J. Furney

I am wondering if it’s possible that I’m sitting across the narrow aisle from the most annoying person in the world. In a blaring brash voice, the unkempt Irishwoman, who looks to be in her late sixties, is giving a moment-by-moment account of what is happening among the various personnel coming and going from the cockpit of the packed airplane we have been intermittently on for the last three days.

“There’s someone going in… There’s someone coming out… No — wait. They’re going to close the door… The door is still open… The captain is leaving the cockpit… He’s going back in…”

And on it went, an unending verbal stream stating the blindingly obvious.  

She was reporting on the cockpit traffic for, presumably, the benefit of her elderly husband, beside her, and the couple’s friends, of equal age, seated in the row in front of me. Perhaps she alone was visually gifted, and the rest of the holiday party was having trouble making things out; but I felt like leaning across the aisle and saying to her that we all have eyes, so there’s no need for the rapid-fire commentary, thanks very much. 

But I didn’t. Because I knew she would have viciously snapped at me. Because she did so two days earlier, on the same plane. 

And I pondered how someone of advanced age — anyone, of any age — could think they could get away with such boorish behavior. But it seemed her doddery, dozy spouse wasn’t up to much, possibly in any department, and she was running unfettered, wild. It was clear she viewed me as someone much younger and of little worldly experience and whom she could easily boss around. 

If she’d known the things I’ve been through, the places I’ve been, the spectacles I’ve seen, she might have changed her bullying tune. 

I had had the run-in with the wiry, lumpy woman when I was standing at the plane’s front door and peering out at a massive Saharan sandstorm in the Canary Islands in late February that had forced our flight to divert to Tenerife just minutes before we were about to land in neighbouring Gran Canaria, both part of the eight-island Spanish archipelago off the coast of northwest Africa. 

The natural phenomenon, known as la calima in these parts, had been described on news reports as “apocalyptic”, blanketing out the sun and turning the sky various shades of ochre. Suddenly, flights were scrambling to get out of the sands’ way, as though they had no forewarning and their radars had been unable to detect it well in advance. 

In Spanish, “diversion” means fun (or at least divertida/divertido). For the nearly 200 people on board this Aer Lingus flight that had taken off from Dublin, Ireland, about four hours earlier, it was rapidly turning out to be anything but. 

Not Plane Sailing: After diverting to Tenerife, because of a gigantic sandstorm that shut the airport at my destination of Gran Canaria, I am peering out the aircraft door when, shortly afterwards, I am accosted by obtuse Irish people, and a haughty cabin crew member refuses to say what will happen next. (Photo: William J. Furney)

I had been asking a petite and blonde member of the cabin crew named Rachel, whom a male passenger was at that time quizzing about our diverted flight, what the contingency plans were in such a scenario. (The man had asked if there were usually standstorms of this great nature in this region, and she had replied that she didn’t know, because “I don’t fly here” — you just have, I thought, thinking what a ludicrous answer to give a paying, concerned passenger.) 

Rachel was unable, or unwilling, to give me an answer, even though it should have been simple: We are required under European Union law to accommodate you overnight. Instead, she spat out watery words, in an act of disdain to her passenger, me. (The next day, as I boarded the plane, after having spent a night at a hotel, she greeted me by scrunching up her face into a faux-smile and asking, also in a fake, sarcastic way: “Well, did we look after you well?” Well, you didn’t.)

“There! You have your answer!”, the overbearing Irishwoman roared at me, before storming down the aisle and back to her overburdened seat. 

No, I don’t. And why the rage? 

And the male passenger — a person similarly overweight in body and mind — had shouted at me: “Leave her (Rachel) alone!” To which I replied: “I was merely asking a question,” and he stormed off to the toilet, but not before glaring at me from inside and slamming the door shut.

As it happened, and not all that surprisingly, we were twice dumped into the airport terminal and left to fend for ourselves, after an on-again, off-again plane experience the following day, when the sandstorm was still roaring and making flight impossible. Go to the Iberia counter — the Spanish national airline is part of the same British-owned group as Aer Lingus — someone had said. But it was a Saturday evening and the nearest Ibera counter was closed. I, along with most of the rest of the passengers, eventually found out that there was a bus that would take us to some mystery hotel, and many just followed where others were going. I became a group leader of sorts, with passengers coming up to me on the bus, in the hotel and at the airport to ask what was going on.

This was one of many transport and hotel befuddlements to come — fellow passengers I spoke with were aghast at our airline — and it wouldn’t have done for Rachel or one of her colleagues to have gotten off the plane with us and shepherded us to our transport, while explaining where we were going. That would have been too much to ask, from flight people who all too often think they are above the rest of us (even though they frequently physically are) . 

Part of the hostile reaction to me onboard was that this was an Irish flight with mostly Irish people on board, and to them I had seemed impertinent because, while Irish by birth, I neither “look” nor sound like someone from the tiny Emerald Isle: to them, I am an interloper, even a refugee, and how dare I have the tumescent gall to ask anyone, anywhere, about anything — even about what happens now that our flight has been diverted. It is true that there still exists a homogeneous view in insular Eire, which remains parochial outside affluent city areas (and that’s without even mentioning the still-pervasive Catholic-Protestant divide: I was born into the latter faith, which doubly raises little eyebrows, and people can tell by the way you speak).

I’m not sure what it is, but the people who work on airplanes — pilots aside, as they don’t have direct dealings with passengers — seem to have extraordinary contempt for the public they are paid to serve. My view is that they somehow feel superior, are deeply envious that their passengers (or “customers” as many airlines now call the people who fly with them) get off at the end of the journey while they stay on the plane and fly back where they came from — and that their low-paid careers in the sky didn’t actually let them see the world, instead doing safety demos and serving booze and rubbish food to enormous and frequently bad-tempered people who think an airplane is a mobile extension of a pub. 

That’s so-called low-cost, budget flying anyway. Long-haul and with superb airlines like Singapore Airlines and their world-class service, it’s a far different story. They know how to treat people, with sophistication, class and elan. For now it’s all inconsequential, because coronavirus has shut down the entire aviation industry and many are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. 

When it starts back up again, and for those that survive, crew and passengers alike should have a lot more respect, for everyone. 

Postscript: On the third day of diversion in Tenerife, we finally managed to take off, landing in Gran Canaria less than half an hour later. Several days later, I came down with coronavirus.

  • Title image, a satellite photograph by the NASA Earth Observatory, shows a massive sandstorm blowing off the northwestern coast of Africa and onto the Canary Islands in late February. 

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