We’d been sitting motionless on the tarmac for more than an hour before I really started to worry. It wasn’t the fact that it was almost certain we’d miss our connecting flight in London – it was the fact that the ground crew was trying to fix a problem that the captain delicately said was “not something the Toronto maintenance fellows have seen before.” Encouraging.
The excitement began on the way to the airport at 2:30 pm, when I got a frantic call from Kristy, who was smart enough to check our flights and found out that our flight to Paris was delayed by five hours – meaning we’d miss our connection to Nairobi. Air Canada had already rerouted Alex and I through London, and Kristy made a mad dash to the airport to catch an earlier flight to Pair-ee. I took my original flight to Toronto, met up with Alex at Gate 178, and boarded a Boeing 777 bound for London.
But the plane didn’t move.
8:20 pm: We board the plane, a good 20 minutes in advance of the scheduled takeoff. The Danish couple beside me is friendly, the in-flight entertainment has an impressive array of choices. Why was I so negative when I found out I was flying Air Canada?
8:44 pm: Oh, right, that’s why. The first officer comes on the intercom and announces that the cockpit has just been alerted that our plane was due for its 100-hour check – after 100 hours in the air, aircraft are required to have a routine once-over. So, he says, we’ll be delayed by an hour. The cabin lets out a collective groan. (On a Boeing 777, that’s actually a lot of voices involuntarily groaning at once – sort of had the same effect as the final cut at the end of Inception… if you saw it in theatres you know what I mean.)
8:50 pm: I start to wonder why they didn’t do this “routine check” before they crammed hundreds of people onto a pressurized tube with re-circulated air and no food. Right up until we boarded, the departure screens in the terminal showed “on time” beside the flight number.
9:00 pm: The flight crew comes around, offering water and weak, apologetic smiles.
9:45 pm: The captain himself comes on the intercom. This is how you know it’s serious. The maintenance crew found a problem with the aircraft that has to be fixed before we can take off. It’ll be another hour. Well, at least they found the problem right?
10:20 pm: Yup, they found it… aaaaand it turns out they don’t know how to fix it. It’s a procedure that the ground crew has never done before. I imagine the plane splintering into pieces over the Atlantic, when it turns out they were using a helicopter repair manual to guide the troubleshooting. We’ll be delayed another hour at least, maybe until midnight. The captain keeps using the word “optimistically” in a tone that suggests he isn’t.
10:30 pm: I start pondering a mutiny.
10:41 pm: I think about Louis CK for awhile. (Skip to 2:04 if you’re so busy.)
10:54 pm: Oh! Wait! They’ve fixed it! Now we have to wait while they do the paperwork. Thank you, bureaucracy.
11:20 pm: Well, at least we’re going to London. Maybe Prince Harry will be there.
11:44 pm: Hey there, it’s the captain again. Everything is fixed and ready to go, but guess what? Because we were supposed to leave three hours ago, he’s going to go over his duty period if he flies the whole route. So we need a third pilot. He’s on his way, they swear. This is what we call a “cascade effect”.
11:45 pm: A text from home – “This is some reality sketch show, right? You’re getting punked!”
11:57 pm: The women in front of me starts handing out her chocolate souvenirs to the starving passengers. “Sorry, grandma,” she laughs.
12:09 am: OH MY GOD WE’RE MOVING, a full nine hours after I checked-in at the Air Canada counter in Ottawa (with the desk agent who didn’t want to issue my boarding pass because my entry visa expired before my return ticket — and even argued with his superiors about it).
Once we got into the air, flight was uneventful: I watched most of The Bang Bang Club, ate some nondescript chicken and actually sort of slept.
Heathrow, Hour Seven.
We arrived in London around noon, two hours after our connection had departed for Nairobi. Air Canada had already re-re-booked us on Virgin Atlantic flight leaving at 9 pm — which became the third flight we were supposed to take to Nairobi: first it was a Kenya Airways flight from Paris, then the British Airways flight that left Heathrow before Air Canada entered British airspace. We got meal vouchers, and got laughed at when we asked for lounge access or free Internet. We wandered to find some food and then flaked out on benches, realizing that we flew all night to spend the day in what is basically a mall with runways attached, in order to take another overnight flight. I spent a while trying to count how many hours until I’d taste fresh air again (or in Nairobi, I think it’s enough to settle for non-re-circulated air), as the airport waiting room was probably eight degrees hotter than the rest of the airport because of all the body heat. I’ve never seen such a crowded terminal, or as Alex called it, a “people barn”.
About nine hours after arriving in London, it was time to board the plane for Nairobi. We got there in plenty of time, as we’d already explored the entire terminal, eaten two meals, downed a Magners and watched the episode of Man vs. Wild filmed in Kenya, where Bear Grylls evades a lion attack and then drinks water he squeezes out of elephant dung — a survival skill I won’t be trying. We found our gate number on the looming departure screens, noting that the Air Canada flight returning to Toronto was three-and-a-half hours delayed. (At least something can be said for their consistency?) Foolishly relieved we were switching to Virgin Atlantic, we found our gate and were in our seats about 20 minutes before the scheduled 9 pm departure. Note that word, scheduled.
It was hot on the plane. At first I thought it was just the sweaty rush of getting onto the aircraft and stowing our bags, but looking around I saw beads of sweat, makeshift fans, and passengers dozing in the warmth. There was no cool air coming out of the ceiling jets. Hm.
And then the captain came on the loudspeaker.
You guessed it, a malfunctioning AC unit. I’ll spare you the play-by-play – but it was two hours of sitting on the plane at the gate before we even began the eight-hour flight to Nairobi. Luckily for the flight attendants, the previous 24 hours had worn us down to the point that we couldn’t do anything but giggle.
I arrived Tuesday morning at 9:30 local time, 13 hours late, with almost 36 hours of airplane and airports caked on my body. I’m finally in the apartment I share with the lovely Paige, I have tea with powdered milk, I have an Internet connection, and I’m just about ready to sleep horizontally for the first time in three days. Life is rapidly improving.
I’m sure our ordeal was a one-time thing. It won’t happen to you if you visit me in Kenya. It’s glorious here, so go on and book those tickets! Just maybe not through Air Canada.