Transatlantic flights' last-chance saloon


Air-rage incidents, emergencies, accidents, and arresting drug mules – it’s all part of a day’s work for the crew at Shannon Airport , last stop before the Atlantic, writes JUDITH CROSBIE

AN AMERICAN AIRLINES flight from London to Boston made an unscheduled stop at Shannon airport on February 22nd, after a 55-year-old man had a suspected heart attack on board. Just a few weeks earlier, a British Airways flight left London Heathrow bound for Chicago but a few hours into the flight it was forced to declare an emergency and divert to Shannon after smoke was detected in the cabin.

As the last airport for aircraft heading out over the Atlantic Ocean and the first airport coming in, Shannon gets more than its fair share of emergencies and diversions. It may be a sleepy place these days, with scheduled passenger numbers down at early-1990 levels (last year saw 1.65 million passengers compared with 3.6 million in 2007) but the airport and a number of outside agencies are on high alert for the occasions when a pilot reports that things are not going to plan.

The first people to receive that communication are air-traffic controllers at the Irish Aviation Authority centre, just a few kilometres away at Ballycasey. With 160 air-traffic controllers, this is the biggest such centre in the country; Dublin airport’s operation employs between 90 and 100 air-traffic controllers. The Ballycasey centre controls 90 per cent of all transatlantic planes that have left airports in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Because of the strong tailwinds from the Gulf Stream, the centre can control up to 100 per cent of the flights coming from North America and the Caribbean.

Although the number of flights going through Irish airspace is also down, due to the global recession, this still numbers 1,200 flights every 24 hours.

“In an emergency the pilot will report the nature of the incident. We will then offer to assist in getting the aircraft down, allowing high-speed descents and clear other aircraft out of the area,” says Lilian Cassin, communications manager at the Irish Aviation Authority, who worked as an air-traffic controller in Shannon for 10 years.

It is up to the pilot to determine what kind of support they will need on landing, such as ambulances or fire crew. The station manager overseeing the centre’s air-traffic controllers will then contact the airport and other relevant agencies. “You often know from the tone of the voice of a pilot, if they are anxious, of how serious something is,” says Finbarr Moore, one of the centre’s station managers.

The majority of emergencies and diversions pass off in a routine manner. But more serious ones do happen. Moore recalls an incident from 1997 when an executive jet flying from New Jersey to Nice called in a Mayday alert because of a depressurisation. The aircraft dropped from 41,000ft to 27,000ft in 90 seconds to get out of danger. “Soon after the pilot came on to confirm the operation and said, ‘Sorry folks, I hit the wrong switch and depressurised by mistake’,” Moore says.

Over at the airport, 13 firefighters are on standby 24 hours a day in case a call comes in from air-traffic control warning of an emergency. Accidents at the airport have been rare – the last one involving fatalities was in 1961 – but fire crew must expect the worst. “It is a huge ask expecting people to be ready to respond every day but that’s part of the job,” says Niall Maloney, operations manager at Shannon.

Emergencies are not the only reason that things are tense at Shannon these days. The airport is awaiting a decision in the coming months on its future from the Minister for Transport, who has said its losses (€8 million last year) can no longer be sustained.

Apart from its location on the edge of Europe, Shannon is an obvious choice for aircraft to divert to if there are problems because of its long runway – at 3,199m it is the longest in the State.

The facility is classed as a category-nine airport, which means it receives a certain number of larger aircraft and must have a minimum of three fire engines ready to deploy.

Shannon has six fire engines, all much bigger than the normal vehicles found at fire stations and capable of carrying more water, foam and chemical powder to help put out flames from highly flammable pressurised aviation fuel.

“You have 90 seconds if you have an external fire on an aircraft before it goes internal,” says Pat O’Brien chief fire and rescue officer at Shannon airport. “Your big focus is on speed and getting there quick.”

A declared emergency by a pilot will prompt the airport manager to contact outside bodies – ambulances, fire crew from Shannon town fire station and Ennis fire station, the Garda, Shannon-Foynes Port Company or the Marine Rescue Co-ordination Centre. If an operation needs to be scaled up in the event of an anticipated accident, sea vessels can be put on alert for a plane hitting water and beds in nearby hospitals can be cleared to take casualties.

“There is a set response to these situations. It’s not a case of ‘who’s coming in to help’ if I get a call at 3am in the morning. I will already know the response,” says Maloney.

Fire crew must be on alert even if an emergency appears contained. “Even if it’s a medical emergency involving only one passenger, the aircraft may be on its way to New York and expected to land hours from now. It will have a lot of fuel on board and may come down heavy so the team is ready to deploy in case there are any problems on landing,” says O’Brien.

The fire station in Ennis gets a call between eight and 10 times a year to send fire engines to the airport. “We report to a holding point five miles out from the airport since most crashes occur on landing or take off,” says Adrian Kelly, chief fire officer at Ennis.

“You see accidents all over the world and you are prepared. When you are standing in the airport watching the plane as a speck in the sky for a few seconds, you are aware this could be a problem. You hope it never will be but you are prepared nonetheless.”

Contact is made through formal and informal channels about whether help is needed on the runway. Firefighters from the airport and local fire stations train together on how to deal with fires on aircraft, ensuring the crews know each other. Joint planning and exercise drills are done regularly involving all the agencies needed in an emergency.

Gardaí are present at various types of emergencies. Even for medical emergencies they are on the tarmac to stamp passports of ill passengers who might never have expected to need to clear immigration in Ireland. For other emergencies, they are present along with fire crew and ambulances in the event of an accident.

“If people died we would have to make sure the aircraft was not interfered with, we would have to remove casualties, escort emergency vehicles and ensure access,” says Supt Peter Duff, who is based at Ennis garda station.

The airport has also seen a number of security diversions involving bomb hoaxes and disruptive passengers. Gardaí are on hand to arrest such passengers who are then brought to Shannon garda station to be detained. An early sitting of the District Court is arranged while the individuals choose from a list of solicitors to represent them.

“We’ll get a call to come down to the garda station often early in the morning or at weekends to advise someone who has arrived in a strange country, not knowing what has happened to them,” says Caitriona Carmody, who heads up the largest law firm in Shannon town. “Suddenly we are talking to them about prison and bail. There may even be photographers and members of the media outside.”

Even if a passenger believes a flight attendant behaved over-zealously or disputes what was supposed to have taken place, pleading guilty is often a better option. Contesting a case can mean the process gets prolonged since the witnesses are other passengers often living in various parts of the world. “Some just prefer to start serving their sentence,” says Carmody.

Medical emergencies can also involve drug mules who have swallowed pellets of cocaine or other drugs which have begun to burst out of their packaging.

“These individuals are shocked to wake up in hospital surrounded by gardaí but often are also grateful to airline staff who have just saved their lives,” says Jenny Fitzgibbon, another solicitor at Carmody and Co Solicitors.

Back at the airport, O’Brien explains that despite the high number of diverted flights the airport gets, none in recent years has resulted in crashes or accidents. Its most recent accident was last July, when a scheduled Aer Arann flight from Manchester skidded along the runway before coming to a stop on a grass verge. None of the 21 passengers and four crew on board was hurt. The incident has helped in re-examining the response to emergencies.

“It is easy to train for the obvious but something like that will throw up something new,” says O’Brien.

“It keeps you on your toes and reminds you that no matter what the call you have to be prepared for the unexpected.”

Action stations Incidents at Shannon Airport

August 20th, 2011A Washington to Vienna Austrian Airlines flight diverts to Shannon after a passenger becomes abusive towards flight attendants and other passengers.

He is arrested on landing and receives a €400 fine after a District Court appearance.

February 2011 A Boston to London British Airways flight diverts after a baby on board becomes ill.

August 13th, 2010A Russian cargo aircraft en route from Goose Bay, Newfoundland to Frankfurt-Hahn declares an emergency after one of its engines shuts down.

January 12th, 2010A flight from Amsterdam to Aruba in the Caribbean diverts to Shannon after a passenger says he has a bomb on board. He later pleads guilty and is sentenced to two years and three months in prison, with the last year suspended.

January 11th, 2009A London to Chicago Virgin Atlantic flight declares an emergency after smoke is detected on board.

November 20th, 2008A Toronto to London Air Canada flight diverts after a co-pilot has a suspected breakdown.

September 11th, 2007Three transatlantic flights are diverted to Shannon on the anniversary of the attacks on the US because of air-rage incidents on board. They include flights from Istanbul to JFK in New York, Amsterdam to Cuba and Manchester to Toronto.