LOUD WHISPERS: Malaysia Airlines

This is going to be a long read, so get a drink ready as we begin. I have had many interesting travel adventures in my life, but none as traumatic as this one. I had been looking forward to my recent trip to Malaysia. The last time I visited was in 2008 for a conference. This trip was for a feminist retreat.  I usually travel on Emirates when I am going to Asia and the Middle/Far East. Sadly, Emirates does not fly from Nigeria these days, so I went on Qatar Airways. The flight from Lagos-Doha was pleasant and uneventful. The waiting time for the Doha-Kuala Lumpur flight was two and a half hours, so it was enough time to go through security without feeling under pressure, and to have some coffee. The flight from Doha-Kuala Lumpur was going to be operated by Malaysia Airlines. The waiting time was increased to four hours because the flight was delayed for two hours. While I found it a bit annoying, I did not think much of it. We eventually boarded the flight and all was forgiven and forgotten. Or so I thought.

Approximately two hours into the flight, the pilot made an announcement that there was a technical problem with the aircraft, so we would need to make an emergency landing in Mumbai, India. That was of course cause for concern, and it got worse when a few minutes before we landed, the pilot assured us that their crew had the best training in emergency procedures. So, are we going to crash land? I was thinking to myself. Is this it? For some reason, the song, ‘To you Lord, be all the glory and adoration forever more’ started playing in my mind. We did not crash land. We taxied to a graceful stop, and there were no fire trucks and other emergency services waiting for us on the tarmac. The pilot announced that we would wait for the engineering team in Mumbai to take a look at the problem, then we would know the next steps. Fair enough.

Two hours later, the pilot announced that the problem could not be fixed, so we would need to disembark. Well, who wants to be on a dodgy plane anyway? We all got off the plane feeling a sense of relief. We got on a bus that took us to the airport terminal. When we got there, the bus remained closed. We all sat (or stood) waiting for the bus to open. For one hour, the bus did not open. The passengers then started getting agitated and raising their voices for attention. There was no one from Malaysia Airlines in sight. Some started banging on the windows and doors of the bus. Eventually, the bus was opened, but we were told by the Mumbai Airport officials that we could not enter the terminal. When we told them that we had children and elderly passengers and we needed to use washrooms and could not keep sitting on a bus for hours, they agreed to let us use the facilities, as long as we did not make an attempt to enter the terminal building. For another two hours, we waited on the bus, which was now open, with a number of us sitting on the pavement in front of the terminal. The airport staff brought us water to drink. There was still no one from Malaysia Airlines, though it turned out that they were trying to negotiate our entry into India with the immigration authorities. Granting emergency landing to an aircraft was one thing, giving entry to one hundred and thirty unexpected international travelers was another.

Eventually, they ushered is in to the immigration area for us to fill forms and receive our entry visas. That took another two hours, and people pointed out that it was close to our expected landing time in Kuala Lumpur. I tried to connect to the airport wi-fi so I could let my husband know what was happening, contact my hosts in Kuala Lumpur as well as the taxi driver who would be waiting for me. You needed a code generated by your mobile phone to be able to log on, and every time I put in my country code, it did not work. Most of the passengers had this problem. I usually only use one phone, but I have another one for when I am in the United States, and I was angry with myself for leaving it behind. I made a note to myself to hold on to my obsession with always having a ‘Plan B’.  

I spoke nicely to one of the airport officials, and he kindly helped me get online using his own code. I was able to send out an update on my situation. When we got to the immigration counters, our passports were stamped, but were not given back to us, they were handed over to the Malaysian Airlines staff. This was without exception – British, American, French, Kenyan, South African – they collected the passports of everyone. When we asked why our passports were being withheld, we were told that it was the standard procedure with such unusual travel situations. One of the conditions for being granted emergency entry was that passports had to be held on to. We were then taken to pick up our luggage, then put on a bus to the Westin Hotel, Mumbai.

When we were checking in, the hotel staff asked for our passports and we told them we did not have any. After some back and forth, they asked for any other form of identification. Some of us had soft copies of our passports and they were okay with those too. Another note to myself, always have soft and hard copies of all relevant documentation. The only good thing after this ordeal of many hours was the dinner (well, it was now almost one in the morning) they encouraged us to have before going to bed. By now, I was so fed up with the downward spiral of what was meant to be a pleasant trip, that I willed myself to focus on what was going well. There was no use wallowing in self-pity. Yes, I was hungry, tired, frustrated and apprehensive at being in a country I had not planned to be in with no passport. Yet, I was alive and well. The Chicken Biryani I had was wonderful and the hotel room was nice. Tomorrow would be better, I assured myself. Well, it did not get better.

‘Tomorrow’ started in the morning when we all went down for breakfast. Malaysia Airlines had left a message that they would pick us up at 11.30 am to take us back to the airport, our flight would leave at 3pm. We were relieved and excited. I was one of the first on the bus, though I got suspicious when the bus did not arrive till after 12pm. We got to the airport and there was another round of drama while we tried to get our new boarding passes. Somehow, the Malaysian Airlines staff could not figure out a straightforward way of handing out passes to their passengers outside the airport (we needed them before we could even go in) so we had to make do with huddling around whoever showed up with a batch of passes, shouting out names till it was all done.

So, we got to the counters and started to check in. By now it was almost 1.30pm and my suspicions about the 3pm flight resurfaced. Just after I was checked in, they stopped checking in passengers, my luggage was not moved from the check-in belt. For another hour there was no information on what was happening. Then, around 2.30pm we were told that the 3pm flight would not be leaving for Kuala Lumpur after all. Apparently, they had been planning to use the faulty aircraft from the day before, but after the engineers had tried their best, it had been pronounced unusable yet again. We asked them what would happen next, and could they either re-book us on to other flights or allow us to make arrangements on our own? It turned out that due to the unusual circumstances of our entry in to India, we could not simply make our own arrangements, we had to go through Malaysia

Airlines who were of course unwilling to incur more costs than necessary. I put my bags back on a trolly. You can imagine the level of anxiety of all the passengers, in addition to conspiracy theories. We were reminded that this same Malaysian Airlines lost an aircraft on March 8th 2014 that has never been found till today, Flight MH370. It did not help that when we checked the Malaysian Airlines website, our flight from Doha-Kuala Lumpur was said to have landed in Kuala Lumpur, but here we were, stuck in an airport in Mumbai without access to our passports!

An announcement was made that we should go back to the hotel and await further instructions. I decided I was got going back to the hotel without a clear idea of what was happening. By this time, I was still around the check-in counter, trying to get information from whoever I could and listening to the many agitated people around. I picked up the fact that there was a Singapore Airlines flight leaving that night for Singapore, with a connection on to Kuala Lumpur. There was also another scheduled Malaysian Airlines flight that night but it was allegedly full. I decided to play the cards I had. I moved up to the Malaysian Airlines supervisor at the desk, the one who had checked me in, and I whispered to him that I hoped they would give priority to their business passengers. He looked at me and nodded. I felt a bit guilty, but I was not about to keep being stranded in this place with no end in sight.

We were encouraged to go and eat at the food court but I refused to go, by now getting out of there was more important and I did not want to miss an opportunity while I was away ‘eating’. At around 9pm, the Malaysian Airlines supervisor beckoned to me and asked for my boarding pass in a low voice. I gave it to him, and he told me to bring my luggage. He gave me another boarding pass, and he asked me to follow one of their officers. To cut an already long story short, out of 130 passengers, they were able to get ten of us on to the Malaysian Airlines flight that had been scheduled for that night. Another twenty or so were put on the Singapore Airlines flight, but some of them missed it because they could not get their passports out of Indian immigration in time. It took them over two hours to retrieve our passports and it was only ten of us, but I will not dwell on that in case you begin to wonder why everything happened two hours at a time, but that is the honest truth.

 The flight left around 12.30am and I arrived Kuala Lumpur 36 hours later than originally planned. The important thing is I arrived, and I had a great time with my colleagues. What did I learn from all this? What we all know but always take for granted. Life is short. Things can happen unexpectedly; the universe is full of twists and turns. The world is full of incompetent people in leadership and management who find themselves way in above their heads. Yet it is also a world that has good, compassionate and merciful souls.  I remembered all the times I had been caught up in travel hassles when I was much younger and how angry and irritated I would get. Now I know more about patience, tact, anger management and self-control.  I smiled as 60-year-old me thought back to the time a stranded thirty-something year old version of me terrified a dithering Alitalia airline official in Rome who I blamed for my son’s restlessness and crying.

He promptly attended to me, he probably thought I had it in me to whack him. I was not wrong then. I just know more about perspective now. Life itself is one long-winding journey, and all we can hope for is the good health, mercy and grace to survive the twists and turns. The return journey was smooth, and it was as if the drama of the outbound journey never happened. Yes, that is life for you. Going well till it suddenly bites you in the behind. Let me leave out the debilitating cold and cough I caught on my way back home, the story is already too long.

 Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Development Practitioner, Policy Advocate and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com

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7 Responses to LOUD WHISPERS: Malaysia Airlines

  1. Apata Ayodele December 17, 2023 at 11:29 pm

    Glory be to God for journey mercy..thanks for the lesson shared ma …Patience is life and good to emulate, also we need to be Smart and be at alert always .. thank u Erelu Bambam

  2. Otive Igbuzor December 18, 2023 at 6:45 am

    Amazing story. Thank God it ended well

  3. Maryam December 19, 2023 at 8:32 am

    Such a long read but it worth the time

  4. Ibukunoluwa December 21, 2023 at 6:28 am

    Nice story. It ended well, thank God.

  5. Iyanuoluwa Isinkaye December 21, 2023 at 7:51 pm

    what a surprise. Thank God it ended well

  6. Adegbola Opeyemi December 29, 2023 at 8:39 am

    This is just the reality of life. Thanks for sharing this ma’am

  7. Rachael January 9, 2024 at 10:56 pm

    Thanks for sharing this ma’am.
    It was worth the time


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