Murder on the Lanseria Apron?
FlySafair may win awards for the best on time performance in the world – but sometimes death gets in the way.
I settle into my near-the-front seat on the FlySafair flight to Cape Town – the front is the one ancillary I’m prepared to pay for. The plane is packed, but all the pax are boarded and the doors closed five minutes before scheduled takeoff time. Push-back begins while I settle into reading my Kindle, which thankfully FlySafair tolerates. The petite air hostess starts her safety demonstration, then suddenly drops her lifejacket and goes scurrying aft.
Then there is the call everyone in a movie – or plane – dreads. “Is there a doctor on board?” Heads crane down the aisle to see what’s going on. Looks like there isn’t a doctor on board as the next call is, “Is there anyone who knows CPR on board?”
One of the cabin crew comes running up to the cockpit. We get pulled back into the parking bay. Maybe we aren’t going to leave on time after all. But not a big problem. If a passenger has taken ill – or God forbid died – surely we can just unload him and be on our way? Maybe 30 minutes late?
Once we are back in the parking bay, the cockpit door flies open and the Captain comes striding down the aisle. Good CRM: crew consultation and info gathering before making a decision.
A passenger says CPR is indeed being administered. Not good, I hear it only really works in movies. Word filters from the back that the victim is a huge man. When he started having an attack they thought it was an epileptic fit, so a couple of passengers tried to get him out of the seat and lie him down on the galley floor. Except that he was too big to get around the corner, so now he’s lying half in and out the galley. All the hostesses seem to be particularly tiny. I can’t imagine them giving CPR to an inert giant.
Then the Captain comes striding back down the aisle and into the cockpit. A strange silence settles over the crowded plane as we all wonder what happens next. The answer is not one we want to hear. The PA system crackles, “This is the Captain speaking. All passengers must please disembark through the front door.” There was some grumbling, but he had the necessary ‘command authority’.
The air hostess begins to open the door; then sees the red tape that shows the escape chute is armed is still across the window. She quickly disarms it. If that chute had inflated like a giant party popper, drama would have turned to farce. The door opens and the steps are waiting. Like obedient sheep, everyone gathers their hand baggage and troops out the plane, back into the departure lounge.
We all look inquisitively out the windows to see what’s going on with ‘our’ plane. Medics in red overalls hurry up and down the stairs. But nothing happens, except they connect a Ground Power Unit. After 45 minutes, more ambulances pull up – these two from private ambulance services. Then they move the high lift truck for wheelchairs to the right rear door. Ah-ha we think, they will take the patient off that way. We all watch the top of the stairs until they bring a big fire truck to screen the view.
The medics at the top of the steps are moving without urgency, and it looks like they are packing their equipment away. I reckon the passenger must have died and somebody else seems to confirm it. Tit-bits of disinformation get passed around by the pax, a lot coming from the already buzzing social media platforms, of which the most shared was, “My aunt was sitting right behind them. Airhostess didn’t know how to perform CPR. Oxygen wasn’t wotking. Bloody shpcking. Nevermind the inconvenience. A man lost his life tonight.” In the absence of other info, the usually fake news on Facebook is all we have.
Time passes and then I wonder about crew flight and duty time limits. A ground hostess at the departure gate announces that we can get meal vouchers. My wife goes to collect but they turn her away because she doesn’t have her ID on her. Also, getting a meal would have meant going back out through the hassles of security, so we give up on the meal vouchers and instead find some interesting passengers to talk to. A sense of camaraderie develops.
More time passes and then the cops arrive. Then the flight crew departs, confirming my fears about flight and duty time. Finally, an announcement from the ground hostess: the flight will now depart at 21h30. Someone says it’s because our plane has been grounded by the cops.
With nothing to do we start speculating. Why has the plane been grounded? Why can’t they just get the body off the plane and we will be on our way? Somebody says it’s because the cops suspect foul play – in other words the pax might have been murdered. So now the whole plane is a crime scene.
Murdered, really? How? Did someone slip him Enterprise polony for lunch? Maybe he’s another Russian double agent like Alexander Litvinenko who they poisoned with polonium. That’s why they had to get all us pax off the plane. But then maybe some of the pax won’t want to fly in a plane someone just died in.
We wonder what would have happened if the passenger had died in flight. I have heard of passengers having to sit for hours next to a stiff that has been covered in a blanket and is slowly leaking gas and body fluids. Turns out the rule for the Captain is to land at the nearest suitable airport. I start thinking about trauma counselling and I wonder if the airline is despatching a congregation of counsellors for our passengers who watched him die and then the futile efforts to revive him.
More cops arrive. But nothing much seems to be happening. We keep the bar staff, who have been kept on duty, happy by ordering a steady stream of double Jammies for us and our new friends, one of whom is an attractive Scandinavian blonde who has just flown in from her community development project in Kenya. The other is in on-line publishing, and doesn’t know how to find the money to pay his contributors. I tell him he should actually print a few copies of his publication to show advertisers that it exits.
Eventually, at 21h15 we get a call to start boarding. We look out the window and the apron is empty, except for our grounded Boeing. Seems like wishful thinking, but still a long queue forms at the departure gate. At 21h40 we hear the sound of thrust reversers. A Safair 737-800 taxies in and I reflect that fortunately it’s bigger than our grounded 737-400, so everyone should fit. Then I wonder whether, if they leave the extra three rows empty, the C of G will be in limits.
The ground staff are now obviously long past their knock-off time and are losing interest in niceties like checking boarding passes and names against IDs. So finally, at 21h50, they just open the door and we all troop onto the new plane and find our seats.
The new crew makes a token apology for the inconvenience before we take off. Its after midnight when we get out the Cape Town Terminal, but our Kapara Home Drive is waiting patiently, four and a half hours after we first asked them to pick us up.
The next day I get hold of Kirby Gordon, FlySafair’s Head of Sales and Distribution. He first expresses his sympathies: “I’m terribly sorry that you guys had to bear witness to this horrible event and also that you were inconvenienced by the resultant delay. Witnessing this kind of event can be traumatic and we make counselling available to customers who seek as much.”
After the usual mayhem of armed robberies and living in SA, we don’t think we needed counselling, but thanks anyway. My big questions are: Was our passenger murdered? Was that why the cops grounded the plane?
Kirby Gordon replies, “When a patient is declared dead on the aircraft, we are required to surrender the aircraft to the SAPS. This is totally standard. Usually it’s avoided because the first responders actually prefer to remove the patient from the aircraft to administer first aid, but this patient was large, and they were forced to perform the necessary in the galley. The result is that the patient passed on the aircraft rather than on the tar/or in an ambulance, so SAPS hold the aircraft because, until they know better, they have to regard the death as being possibly unnatural. Everything must be left as is, while they perform their standard investigation.” He confirms that the oxygen did in fact work but could not save the patient.
Okay, so I guess he wasn’t murdered after all; it was just the usual red tape that kept our plane on the ground. And too bad about FlySafair’s on time performance.