Stanley Johnson hits back at Heathrow flight diversion criticism

Departing soon: Stanley Johnson preparing to leave British Airways flight 2461 from Malaga, which was diverted to Heathrow (Richard Davenport)
Departing soon: Stanley Johnson preparing to leave British Airways flight 2461 from Malaga, which was diverted to Heathrow (Richard Davenport)

Stanley Johnson has hit back at criticism of his insistence on leaving a British Airways flight that diverted to Heathrow.

On Friday, the writer – who is Boris Johnson’s father – was aboard BA2641 from Malaga to London Gatwick.

When a separate British Airways flight rejected take off at Gatwick, the runway was closed for 50 minutes and 16 flights were diverted – including Mr Johnson’s, which landed at Heathrow.

The plan was to refuel the Airbus A321 and make the short flight to Gatwick. But some passengers were keen to disembark – including Mr Johnson.

In the events that followed, the police were summoned to help deal with the issue and the onward flight was later cancelled – with other passengers being taken to Gatwick by bus.

The aircraft later flew from Heathrow to Gatwick, where it arrived around five hours late; the next planned flight was cancelled.

Writing in The Independent, Mr Johnson has laid out his side of the story.

He writes: “As we crossed the French coast, the pilot came on the PA to announce that unfortunately there was a plane stuck on the runway beneath us and we were going to have to circle while they sorted things out.

“Ten minutes later, he made another announcement: ‘The plane on the runway below us is still stalled,’ he told us. ‘We are going to have to divert to Heathrow.’

“As we landed at Heathrow, the captain informed us that after we had taken on some fuel, we would make the ‘short hop’ back to Gatwick.”

Mr Johnson says the captain invited passengers without checked baggage to disembark at Heathrow if they wished.

“That sounded like a very good idea to me,” Mr Johnson writes.

Another passenger, Annemarie, told The Independent: “I can categorically confirm the pilot did not announce that passengers with hand luggage could get off upon landing at LHR [Heathrow].

“It was later, after a few passengers insisted on getting off, that that announcement was made.”

Mr Johnson continues: “I grabbed my bags from the rack and went to the forward entrance of the plane. Two other passengers joined me and the three of us stepped out of the door onto the top of the metal stairs which were already in place.

“All we had to do, I imagined, was for the three of us to wait for the ground transport to arrive to take us into the terminal building. That was the mistake.

“For reasons which I am still unable to grasp, the airport authorities decided that even though the three of us, responding to the captain’s invitation, were ready and willing to disembark, this could not be allowed to happen.

“Apparently, since Gatwick was the scheduled destination, everyone would have to get off in Gatwick – and that included the three of us, even though we were no longer physically in the plane but standing on the platform outside the cockpit.”

The implication is that the offer to allow passengers to leave was withdrawn, which may have been because of the logistics involved or pressure on passport control at Heathrow.

Stanley Johnson continues: “I am not by nature, a troublemaker. A number of police vehicles for some reason gathered at the foot of the steps.

“Lots of police officers were talking on their walkie-talkies. I suspect that I would, in the end, have allowed myself to be shepherded, disgruntled, back inside the cabin. But it wasn’t as simple as that.

“One of my two companions was a woman who was, quite frankly, verging on the hysterical. ‘I absolutely can’t go back into the plane,’ she cried. ‘I’ve just lost my husband in an air accident. It was all I could do this morning to bring myself to get on board the plane in Malaga. I simply can’t imagine going back in it now, for another take-off and another landing. No, I’m not going to. I’m absolutely not going to.’”

Other passengers have told The Independent about a passenger with a fear of flying. One passenger, Annemarie, said that Mr Johnson and the anxious flyer “were getting quite irate, hence the police”.

“In the end the authorities went for the nuclear option,” Mr Johnson continues.

“Rather than let the three of us, carrying our handbags, nip onto one of the police vehicles and pop over into the arrivals lounge, they decided to redefine the flight – not as a Malaga to Gatwick flight, but as a Malaga to Heathrow flight.

“We could be allowed off since we could now be deemed to have ‘reached our scheduled destination’. This effectively meant that they cancelled the flight.

“I am sorry, truly sorry, for the inconvenience caused to other passengers, some of whom no doubt had cars or loved ones waiting for them at Gatwick, and who found themselves disembarking willy-nilly at Heathrow instead.”

He concludes: “I’m glad I stood my ground. And there was one passenger, at least – that poor woman whose husband had just died in an air crash – who thanked me for it.”

Neither the passenger involved, nor the circumstances of the tragedy, have been identified. The last fatal accident involving British Airways was at Manchester in 1985.

Other passengers have criticised Mr Johnson. Richard Davenport, told The Independent: “As Stanley Johnson decided he wanted to get off – along with another passenger – we subsequently missed the slot.

“It took a few hours to sort and ultimately BA cancelled the flight. All passengers then had to deplane and proceed through immigration and then take a bus to Gatwick.

“With a car parked at Gatwick we didn’t have to option to just leave at Heathrow. It left 99.5 per cent of passengers with a bitter taste.”

A spokesperson for British Airways said on Friday: “Due to earlier disruption at Gatwick, the flight diverted to Heathrow where it terminated.”

The Independent has sought clarification on the incident from BA.

Heathrow airport has declined to comment.