web Musings of The Global Traveller

Friday, February 08, 2008

It isn't every day that you witness a hijacking attempt.

Yesterday as I was checking in for a domestic flight from Christchurch I was told matter of factly to expect a delay as the armed defenders squad had been called out. I didn't know how to respond to that so headed to my gate in the satellite terminal. Once there, we had the odd experience of watching a stake out of the small aircraft which was stopped in the runway.

News slowly filtered in courtesy of phone calls and text messages. There'd been an attempted hijacking and a bomb threat had been made. The two pilots had been cut in some scuffles onboard. There were no serious injuries, and no damage to the aircraft. (Incidentally that was a flight I've made before.) There has been widespread news coverage of the event - Stuff for example.

After about 30 minutes we were evacuated first from the satellite terminal (and others from the airside portions of the main terminal), and then minutes later the whole terminal shut down. Fortunately it was a nice day and so thousands of airport staff and passengers (plus media contingent who soon arrived) camped out on the grass and in the carpark of the airport. The mood was sombre but light spirited - more of an inconvenience than that anyone was in any real danger.

An hour or so later a flyer was handed out - PR from the airport company. We all laughed at part of the wording "The airport terminals are operational but passengers should expect delays getting to the airport."

After a couple of hours the international terminal reopened but the domestic terminal remained closed. Someone at Pacific Blue was quick thinking. They tried to use the international terminal for their much delayed domestic flight. I don't think they succeeded but get credit from me for trying.

Around the 3 hour mark the airport reopened.

Inside was chaos. Thousands of passengers all trying to get rebooked, or even just find out if they needed to. Is the flight they've already checked in for going albeit hours late or is it cancelled? What about onward connections?

Those with bags had to recheck them (for all aircraft bags had been unloaded either just before the terminal evacuation or later when it reopened). Aircraft were out of place all over the country - it would take some time to unjam the system. Flights were using odd gates instead of their usual ones. One Pacific Blue flight in front of me had to disembark because someone forgot to make sure the passengers (and their carry ons) had all been screened - amazing at any time let alone in this situation.

Lots of flights were cancelled and most delayed for the rest of the day.

I've experienced airport closures for all sorts of odd reasons - power cuts, weather, presidential visit. This is the first time I've been close(ish) to a hijacking attempt. Hopefully it will be the only time.

Calls to improve security have already been made. At least one Australian politician is using the incident to justify their sky marshal program (as if a small 19-seater aircraft would ever have a marshal). I'm not convinced a knee-jerk reaction will help. The risk is small (I think but I'm no expert) and if someone is mentally disturbed, as appears to be the case here, they could easily cause more "damage" just driving on the highway.

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