Angela Merkel left stranded after serious plane malfunction

German chancellor takes commercial flight to G20 in Argentina after dramatic landing

German chancellor Angela Merkel steps down from the Airbus “Konrad Adenauer” after an emergency landing at Cologne airport. Photograph: Jorg Blank/AFP/Getty Images

Don’t cry for me, Argentina. With a 14-hour delay, a mini-delegation and no husband, German chancellor Angela Merkel left for Buenos Aires on Friday morning, missing the first day of the G20 summit after a dramatic night in the skies.

The chancellor’s plane made an emergency landing in Cologne on Thursday evening after an electronic fault caused a complete communications system failure.

A series of unfortunate events followed: the plane was unable to dump its fuel for the 12,000km journey and the main runway in Cologne was not available. That meant the “Konrad Adenauer” government jet – a modified Airbus A340 – was forced into a hard landing on a shorter runway, with fire crews on hand to monitor the overheated brakes.

“After the events I can say there was a serious defect,” said Dr Merkel on arrival.


The only suitable replacement plane was in Berlin, but another crew was not available to continue the journey. So, after a short night’s sleep in a four-star Cologne hotel, the chancellor took a commercial flight from Madrid to Argentina.

Her air odyssey began an hour after the government jet left Berlin at 8pm. German television journalist Bettina Schausten was sitting with other travelling press in a background briefing with Dr Merkel when the problem arose.

“Someone from the air crew came in and said, ‘Madam Chancellor, please come, it’s important’, which was clearly different to normal,” said Schausten on her home station, ZDF. “We learned that the on-board electronic system had failed. The mood onboard was not fearful or agitated, the captain promised a safe landing and everything ended up fine.”

‘Classic failure’

After online conspiracy theories began to build, government officials insisted on Friday the problems was a “classic failure of a component that could happen at any time”.

Commander Guido Heinrich, head of the German air force VIP squadron, said the failed component was responsible for the emergency electricity supply.

This failure – considered extremely rare in aviation circles – meant that radio communications were inoperable, leaving a satellite phone as the only means of communication with air traffic control, as were controls to dump excess fuel as usual in the case of emergency landings.

After landing with a near-full tank, Dr Merkel and other passengers had to spend 70 minutes on board until the brakes had cooled.

German government jets have had a run of bad luck recently. Last month finance minister Olaf Scholz was left stranded in Bali after rats ate through a government jet’s on-board cables.

“The air force is certainly no poster boy if it’s unable to get the chancellor to a summit,” said Ms Schausten. “I think the chancellor has already prepared herself for some ribbing.”

After wild days and mad existence in power, Dr Merkel – who stands down as leader of her party next Friday – was determined to reach Buenos Aires for the G20 summit dinner, and hopefully catch up on missed bilaterals.

Her message en route to US and Chinese presidents: I kept my promise, don’t keep your distance.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin