Flight Returns To Airport To Pick Up 2 Passengers

Filed Under: Media, Other Airlines

Here’s an interesting story about an Air Malta flight, which was flying between Luqa and Manchester. The plane apparently returned to Malta 40 minutes into its journey to pick up two passengers they had “forgotten.” Now, I think we’ve all “just barely” missed a flight at one point or another, and fantasized of the plane turning back to pick us up.


Heck, I think most of us would be thrilled if the plane’s door were reopened to let us aboard, let alone having a plane turn around mid-air to pick us up.

So what was the motivation for the mid-air u-turn? Were the two passengers Air Malta executive? Nope.

Via The Daily Mail:

The Times of Malta reports that originally the airline said that the Airbus A319 made the diversion due to ‘a security precautionary measure following a discrepancy in the number of passengers and baggage on board’.

Flight KM 146 made a safe landing back at Luqa Airport, where staff met with the two passengers, a Briton and a Chinese person.

So it seems like the plane didn’t actually return to the airport to pick up the passengers, per se, but rather because there were bags traveling without passengers. Since the Lockerbie bombing a lot of airlines have had policies whereby bags have to be offloaded if the passengers they belong to aren’t aboard as well. And it seems like that’s what was at play here. That being said:

  • I’ve never quite understood why this is still a policy; if bags are properly screened, who cares whether passengers are traveling with their bags or not?
  • Commercial planes carry cargo all the time, so it’s a bit odd to me that airlines are so concerned about checked bags, while they’re happy to carry all types of cargo.
  • Once you’re already in the air for 40 minutes, is it really safer to turn back to the origin than to continue for the rest of the journey?

Interestingly, as far as I know, US airlines don’t have this policy, which I suppose is one of the few areas where they’re not the world’s leading “security theater.”

When the plane returned to Malta, they had to offload two passengers to accommodate those who missed the flight:

However, the flight was fully booked so two staffers who were travelling on discounted tickets agreed to give up their seats for the pair before the plane took off for the UK.

The airline knew two people were missing, gave away their seats, and didn’t bother matching the bags? Hmmm…

Though perhaps the most interesting part of the story is this:

The incident is believed to have cost the airline €2,000 (£1,500).

That actually seems a lot less than I would have expected for an A319 being diverted. I figured the fuel bill alone would have been quite a bit more than that.


What do you make of airline rules requiring passengers to fly with their bags? Is it an antiquated policy, or does it still have merit? Does that change once the plane has been flying for 40 minutes?

  1. I’d be dubious about this and suspect it was well connected Maltese. In the late 90s my college girlfriend’s parents knew the high ups at Air Malta well and once arranged for some other passengers to be bumped off a full flight so we could travel.
    Still feel a little guilty about that to this day!

  2. I believe US airlines are required by the FAA to enforce this rule on international flights, but not on domestic flights … because that makes so much more sense.

  3. So how does airlines handle missing/sent to wrong airport bags? Surely those bags travel on passenger flights without the passenger being present all the?

  4. I think it is a good rule, but it shouldn’t be enforced to the letter of the law. Screening is never going to be 100% effective, so it is a good deterrent to have this policy of bags must fly with passengers. It forces a would be bomber to be willing to be a suicide bomber (and if the bomb is detected during screening, the person will be sitting in the terminal ready to be arrested). If it doesn’t get enforced all of the time due to IRROPs or occasional mistakes, that is probably okay since it is trying to stop an event that is already exceedingly rare.

  5. What about when the airline forgets (or chooses not) to load your bag(s)? I’ve had that happen and they just stick it on the next flight. Does that “violate” the rule on bags flying without their passenger?

  6. I think it’s a weird rule, especially with what you pointed out about cargo.

    In the US, I’ve checked bags and then have the flight delayed. Ii was able to standby and fly on an earlier flight without my bags. My bags flew on my original flight and I picked them up at the airport a day later, which I was fine with. My main goal was to get home.

    In Europe, I was stuck waiting for a few hours because I had checked bags and the agent wouldn’t let me fly on an earlier flight after checking bags into my original flight. Not the end of the world but I would liked to have maximized my time in the connecting city.

  7. @No Name Based on my recent experience with British Air they apparently put them on ships. 🙂

    Thats my best guess since it took them 3 weeks to get a bag back to me in Chicago after they lost it somewhere between Heathrow and Rome on a recent trip.

  8. There’s also the point that this rule was instigated in the days before suicide attacks were common – it’s a bit outdated these days.

  9. I think US carriers do have a policy of “no luggage flies without the corresponding passengers”. I remember sitting at the gate for 20 odd minutes on a Delta flight at ATL headed to CDG. The announcement said that they had to take out one or two bags out of the luggage hold because one passenger didn’t board the plane. Annoying as it was for the passengers, I can imagine it must have driven the luggage handlers a little crazy.

  10. @DP and @David

    As Lucky (sorta) mentioned, you cannot knowingly separate from your bags. In your cases, you didn’t find out the airline forgot them or didn’t load onto sby until after landing. During flight, you both assumed your bags were underneath. That’s how the policy is meant to work.

    International flights still use PPBM. But bags can actually follow pax for intl travel!

    There’s a long FT thread on this topic.

  11. I was on a flight and a passenger got on, out his bag in the overhead bin and then got off the plane. After about ten minutes of his not showing back up, I summoned the flight attendant and explained the situation. They pulled his bag out of the bin and took it off the plane. I can assure you, had that not been done, I would not have flown on that flight.

  12. Lucky do you remember there was an episode of “Air Crash Investigation” talking about a guy checked a bag at Vancouver, transited through Toronto and the bag is finally due to arrive in India?

    That guy never got onboard either plane. The bag contained a bomb and 250+ people died.

  13. Jetfuel sounds about right. A319 could burn ~8,000 pounds or ~1,200 gallons for 2 takeoffs & that short duration. At current A-1 price, it would well be under US$2,500

  14. I support 100% bag matching all the way with zero tolerance for mistakes. I think that should apply to domestic flights in the USA and Canada as well with fines starting at 250,000$ for EACH BAG that is mishandeled. That would eradicate the problem of luggage being lost.

  15. I was on a IAD-GRU flight and the pilot said we would be delayed because they needed to offload bags from passengers who weren’t onboard. So, US airlines have this procedure for international flights.

  16. While a voluntary separation from your bag is impossible by policy, it has happened to me at my request (and if you’re nice they’ll even deliver your bags to your hotel/home, helps to be top tier).

    And for international to the US flights, while I’ve been delayed because of a bag mismatch, I’ve also found my bag was loaded on the wrong US bound flight – somehow my flight took off without my bag, and the other flight took off with my bag. Not sure why they didn’t figure that out but the tracking for my bag was spot on, my bag took 2 extra hops and 6 extra hours. Of course delivered to me promptly. This was last week.

  17. “However, the flight was fully booked so two staffers who were travelling on discounted tickets agreed to give up their seats for the pair before the plane took off for the UK.”

    Since we’re nit-picking. It’s highly unlikely that the two airline staffers “agreed” to give up their seats. Most likely, they were approached by the CSA and (if they behaved the way that non-revs should) quietly gathered their belongings, and walked off the aircraft to make other arrangements.

  18. Cargo is screened using a different and more invasive screening process, which takes longer than the standard baggage screening. The same process is required for baggage travelling without passengers. This is the case in Europe at least.

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