Revealed: Why a British Airways flight to Germany accidentally landed in Scotland

Simon Calder
1 / 2
Revealed: Why a British Airways flight to Germany accidentally landed in Scotland

After a planeload of passengers on a British Airways flight to Dusseldorf ended up in Edinburgh by mistake, neither BA nor the airline to which it sub-contracted the flying, WDL Aviation, has said much apart from “sorry”.

So what could possibly have gone wrong with British Airways flight 3271? The Independent has been investigating.

Why wasn’t British Airways operating the flight?

BA does not have enough aircraft to operate its advertised schedule, and it therefore “wet-leases” planes from other airlines – which means hiring the aircraft, pilots and cabin crew. It’s absolutely standard practice in aviation; I have flown on Titan Airways when I booked easyJet, and Air Arabia instead of Ryanair.

For this flight, BA contracted WDL Aviation, a small German airline that does a fair amount of flying for British Airways’ London City base. British Airways assures me that passengers will have known they were not booking on “real” BA.

So no one stepping aboard BA3271 should have been surprised that instead of a shiny Embraer jet, they were on a 33-year-old British Aerospace 146 plane instead.

How did the plane end up flying to the wrong country?

British Airways will have specified to its sub-contractor, WDL, the pattern of flying for the day. Looking back over the past week, that plane has flown almost exclusively between London City and Germany – mostly Dusseldorf but also Frankfurt.

That’s a logical assignment because, while some passengers may be mildly miffed to find themselves on a non-BA plane, at least the crew was German-speaking.

But BA, as the customer, can deploy the plane wherever it wishes, and on Sunday 24 March, the day before, it flew Dusseldorf-London City-Edinburgh-London City-Dusseldorf.

It is reasonable to conclude that someone picked up or emailed the wrong day’s flying programme, and the mistake wasn’t noticed.

Surely someone should have picked up the mistake?

Had it been a “real” British Airways plane there is little chance that it would have happened. But because WDL does not work on the same IT system as BA, the opportunity for the error to be spotted on “the ramp” as the plane was being turned around was lost.

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?”

As Eurocontrol has pointed out: “We get 30k flight plans a day. If someone files for EGPH [Edinburgh] and then flies there, no eyebrows are elevated.”

So the plane took off with everything apparently in order.

Should the passengers have spotted the problem?

Yes. I don’t know what the pre-flight announcement said – possibly they may have simply given the flight number – and in my experience people pay little attention. What’s more concerning is that passengers in window seats with a modicum of geographical training on a clear day should have spotted:

a) that they had not flown over a substantial body of water, ie the North Sea, shortly after take-off (the flight to Edinburgh went along the spine of Britain).

b) the sun was at a very different angle to the plane – behind and slightly to the right, rather than ahead and slightly to the right – and therefore they were flying further away from their intended destination.

But there are some unusual flight plans due to congestion, military operations etc, which can cause considerable detours from the most direct track.

Presumably when the Forth Bridge appeared in view, people will have realised that they were not going to land at the handsome city on the Rhine, but by then the plane was on the final approach and would not have had enough fuel to fly an extra 526 miles to Dusseldorf.

Has anyone offered to help BA avoid the same problem again?

Yes. Ryanair is helpfully sending a copy of Geography for Dummies to British Airways.

Will passengers get any compensation?

Yes. Everyone on the original flight, as well as those on the remaining London City-Dusseldorf-London City flights (at least three more of them, delayed by up to five hours because of the problem) is entitled to €250 (£215) in compensation.

There should be no problem getting WDL, as the operating carrier, to pay up. The cash is payable unless the cause was “extraordinary circumstances that could not be avoided even if all reasonable measures had been taken”. I think it is reasonable to expect the airline to check which direction to point the plane in.

If people have specific financial losses attributable to the foul-up, from extra car-parking charges to lost wages, they can cite the Montreal Convention and seek additional compensation.

Does this sort of thing happen often?

No, because of the multiple opportunities for such an error to be spotted. However, it is not unknown. I have ended up at Heathrow rather than Gatwick on a flight to Dubai, because the Emirates duty office neglected to tell the captain to land at Gatwick rather than Heathrow. But at least it was in the same country.

A more frequent occurrence is landing at the wrong airport – typically when a second airport is close to the intended destination. Delta Airlines pilots landed at a US Air Force base in Rapid City, South Dakota rather than the main airport in 2016. In 2013, an Ethiopian Airlines flight to Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania touched down in nearby Arusha airport.

The most extreme case was in 1995, when Northwest Airlines touched down at Brussels rather than Frankfurt.

Why does BA sell flights when it doesn’t have enough planes or crew?

An airline’s fleet and the pilots and cabin crew to staff the flights are long-term resources, and opportunistically an airline may wish to fly extra services – as British Airways did through the summer of 2018 when it bought Monarch’s slots and had to “use them or lose them”. Another reason: technical issues such as the grounding of many Boeing 787 aircraft because of problems with their Rolls-Royce engines. BA is chartering an elderly Air Belgium plane to cover some long-haul services.

There may be much more “wet-leasing” this summer because of the problems with Boeing 737 Max planes, which will potentially see Norwegian and Ryanair chartering in spare capacity to cover gaps in the fleet because of the grounding of the Max.