Nightmare on Dreamliner: Rat makes Air India flight U-turn to Mumbai after 2.5 hours

Dec 31, 2015, 06:45 IST | Neha LM Tripathi

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Here’s an example of a big problem in a small package — Air India passengers heading to London lived through a nightmare yesterday, as their flight had to be grounded, all because a rat had been spotted onboard. To the dismay of 256 fliers, this discovery was made two and a half hours into the flight, forcing the pilot to turn the aircraft to Mumbai again.

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AI 131 — an Ahmedabad-Mumbai-London flight — was to take off from Mumbai at 7.30 am, but finally departed at 7.55 am. After the 25-minute delay, passengers settled in for the 9-hr flight to Heathrow airport. However, two and a half hours into the flight, just as the Dreamliner aircraft was coasting over east Iran, the pilot announced that they were returning to Mumbai due to a technical snag.

Passenger Sanjay Joshi seen here with his family at the airport
Passenger Sanjay Joshi seen here with his family at the airport

In truth, one of the crewmembers had spotted a rat onboard, and passed on the information to the pilot, who had no choice but to turn back, in case the rat gnawed through any of the aircraft controls. This is not the first instance of a flight being grounded due to rats onboard (see ‘Pest problem’). In such cases, flights have to be grounded immediately to assess any damage, as rats can chew through crucial wiring or other equipment, leaving the aircraft out of control.

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The fliers were offered refreshments as they waited for take-off
The fliers were offered refreshments as they waited for take-off

One of the 256 passengers on the flight, Kiran Joshi, said, “We were all worried when after flying for more than two and a half hours, the captain announced that we were going back to Mumbai due to a technical snag. Though we repeatedly asked crewmembers for the exact reason, they refused to reveal anything.”

The fliers were finally told about the rat once the flight had touched down in Mumbai at 12.37 pm — by this time, the fliers would have been halfway to London.

“It was only after we landed back in Mumbai that the airline’s ground staff informed us there was a rat in the flight, which they feared might have damaged the wires of the aircraft,” added Kiran.

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The passengers were served refreshments at the terminal and were assured that the flight would take off for London around 4 pm. However, this was pushed to 5.30 pm, and then to 6.35 pm, which is when the fliers finally took off, nearly 12 hours after the original scheduled departure time.

A flier, Sanjay Joshi was waiting for the flight with his family, but missed a business meeting because of the delay. “I had to cancel a meeting in London due to the flight delay. Since I am a business class passenger, there were no service issues at the terminal, but the delay has been very long for all of us,” he said.

However, many were more upset about the delay, especially since the airline eventually could not even find the rodent in the aircraft.

“I had a connecting flight from Heathrow airport which I will miss due to the prolonged delay. When I explained this to the airline staff, they had nothing to offer but apologies. It’s not a joke to travel five hours only to return to the same airport. I have been troubled throughout the day,” said a frustrated passenger.

Air India says
An Air India spokesperson said, “AI 131 (Mumbai to London) returned to Mumbai today due to suspected rat sighting. Though the presence of the rodent was not confirmed, keeping passenger safety in mind, the aircraft was brought back. Air India gives utmost importance to safety. Our engineering team is investigating the incident. A standby aircraft was made available to fly the passengers to London. The aircraft with the suspected rodent will be fumigated as per procedure.”

Expert speak
Aviation expert Dr Vipul Saxena observed that “Once a snag of any kind is reported, the aircraft needs to be thoroughly checked, which may require 4-6 hours for defect identification and rectification, or even if the aircraft is to be replaced. In such a situation, landing at nearest airfield abroad would have caused huge expenses for parking and refuelling, as well as the cost of lodging for passengers. Hence, Air India’s action seems operationally appropriate. However, compensating passengers for the delay and discomfort is a commercial issue.”

Pest problem

July: A Delhi-Milan Air India flight was cut short after a rat was spotted onboard. After flying for 2 hours, AI-123 was in Pakistani airspace when the rat was sighted and the pilot decided to turn back to Delhi. However, the flight had to jettison some of the fuel it was carrying to be light enough for a safe landing. The presence of the rodent was not confirmed

May: An Air India aircraft was grounded in Leh after some rats were spotted in the Airbus A320. It was taken out of service to be fumigated after it landed.

Cost to airline
“A Dreamliner consumes around 2 tonnes of fuel per hour. This means around 10 tonnes of fuel was consumed by the aircraft in the 4.5 hours it was airborne. The approximate cost of the fuel used is around $40,000 (Rs 27 lakh),” said a senior Air India official.

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