Oops: KLM’s 11 Hour Flight To Nowhere

Filed Under: KLM

Some KLM passengers had a very long flight to nowhere yesterday.

KLM flight 685 was supposed to fly from Amsterdam to Mexico City. The flight ended up taking around 11 hours, as usual, though passengers didn’t end up in Mexico City. Rather they ended up in Amsterdam, right where they started.

The Boeing 747-400 operating the flight turned around when it was already over North America, meaning it crossed the Atlantic twice.

Believe it or not, situations like this actually aren’t that uncommon, as there’s a story like this several times per year.

So, what happened? As KLM explained the situation in a Tweet:

The reason for the return was the unfavourable flying conditions above Mexico after activity of the volcano Popocatepetl. Our apologies for the inconvenience.

Indeed, Mexico’s Popocatépetl volcano erupted yesterday, and volcano eruptions can have big impacts on air travel. Many may remember in 2010 when Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted, causing the biggest disruption to international air travel since 9/11.

So why wouldn’t KLM just divert to Canada or the US, given that this would have saved them about five hours of flying? Well, because landing at a foreign outstation in a country different than where you originated causes all kinds of other potential issues:

  • Many passengers may not have been able to get visas to enter Canada or the US, so people may have then been stranded on the plane
  • Once the plane was on the ground, it’s unlikely that the crew would have been able to continue flying after waiting for a while, since they would have “timed out”
  • Rebooking an entire 747 worth of people, not to mention finding accommodation for them, is significantly more challenging at an outstation than at a hub

As a result, KLM went with the safe option and flew everyone back to Amsterdam.

But there’s actually a further wrinkle. Reports suggest that there were two dozen horses on the plane as well, and having them involved with a diversion would have complicated things even further.

While this was no doubt inconvenient for everyone involved (and very costly for KLM), I 100% trust their judgment here, that they acted to the best of their ability. You never know how bad these eruptions will be, and the situation could have been much worse.

Now, in fairness, many other airlines flew from Europe to Mexico City yesterday without disruptions. However, they left at different times, had access to different information, and probably didn’t have horses.

Yes, an 11 hour flight to nowhere is quite a story and is inconvenient, but an airline should never be faulted for erring on the side of caution, in my opinion.

Comments
  1. In Dutch news it was reported the plane carried 24 horses as well. There was no alternative airport available who could have handled live stock this returning to AMS was by far the best option (in addition to also taking into consideration what you mentioned around visas, crew time out etc).

  2. Reading the title I was thinking of a mistake, but given the circumstances decisions couldn’t have been any better.

  3. I flew the KLM 747-combi a few weeks ago from AMS-JFK and there were horses in the cargo hold as well. Is this a particular niche for KLM? Does the combi specifically lend itself to transporting large animals?

  4. @KG: I knew it. KLM was just horsing around.

    (Apologies. I can’t resist when a dad joke just needs to get out.)

  5. 747-400 combi was carrying horses and only certain airports can handle equine traffic. A diversion to another Mexican airport would not be possible.
    Then the crew would time out and then horses would need to be rebooked which would be a logistical nightmare
    Probably wouldn’t be able to land in the US unless there was an emergency declared unless all the passengers had visas or ESTAs

  6. Back in 1998 I has a similar situation on KLM. Flying from Amsterdam to Almaty, Kazakhstan on a 767 we got to the latter and circled for about 40 minutes and then the flight turned around and went back to Amsterdam – a little over 16 hour trip to nowhere. The pilot came back to business class and told us that Almaty was totally fogged and and that KLM did not fly a similar aircraft within 5 hours of Almaty so he was directed to return to Amsterdam. The only reason we could fly so long was that Kazakhstan at the time had a shortage of aircraft fuel so incoming aircraft had to arrive with excess fuel to assure that the aircraft would be able to take off and fly at least 4 hours to another airport that would have aircraft fuel.

  7. Not related to this story but Happy Thanksgiving and thanks for posting new topics today. All my other favourite sites are taking the day off today so it was nice to see something new to read here.

  8. KLM is rumoured in equine circles as having superior catering for horses (finest Belgian hay) in contrast to the lacklustre offerings to it’s human cargo.

  9. Dutch Warmblood horses are one of the most commonly seen and popular breed of horses in the US (and around the world) – hundreds are imported every year, which is why KLM often transports horses.

  10. @Dan: I once flew a race car across the ocean and the container that it went in would only fit in one type of commercial aircraft, a 747, because it has both width but the profile is taller than most aircraft which are round tubes. The combi uses part of the passenger deck for cargo, which accommodates the height of the horses but also allows easy access to them during flight. KLM has an interesting blog series on the process:

    https://blog.klm.com/how-a-horse-flies/

  11. I was on a KLM flight once from AMS to LAX, which turned around approximately halfway
    over the Atlantic, near Iceland. The pilot made an announcement that began with “some of
    you may have noticed that we have changed direction…” the upshot was that one engine
    had stopped working and we were flying back to AMS. He also told us not to be alarmed if
    we noticed fuel emitting from the wings…we would have to dump fuel in order to land
    safely. We then had to wait for several hours at Schiphol while they found another plane for
    us, eventually departing around 10 hours after our original departure time. Approximately
    two weeks later, a KLM jet lost an engine while taking off from LAX–there was a photo of
    an engine lying on the beach. I have always suspected that this was the engine that had
    malfunctioned on our flight, though of course this was just speculation.

  12. Terrible experience! We were the only flight in this situation carrying horses… the only flight cancelled and going back to AMS! because of the horses can’t be accepted in any other Country they treated as like animals… and after we arrived in AMS at 2 am none was there to give assistance or hotel accommodation! The worst experience ever! They have to reimburse all of us!

  13. Feel sorry for the passengers buy it seems they made the right call. Impressive that they had that much fuel on board.

  14. The horses we’re trying to escape from being ground into frikadellen. Also 12 horses x 2 crossings is 24 horses.

  15. Despite your comment in cases like this the Canadian Authorities would have had no problems allowing passengers off the plane and to let them at least go to a secure part of the terminal if not local hotels rather than leaving them on the plane for who knows how many hours until either it was safe to fly to a Mexico or the crew were sufficiently rested to fly again.

    Canada is well used to receiving diverted aircraft so has procedures in place for it and recognises that passengers on such flights may not have the documentation needed for a planned visit to Canada.

    Remember even the Iranians had no problem letting people off the Norwegian plane that was diverted due to engine trouble until an evacuation flight could be organised. they didn’t demand people have the right visas etc and IIRC didn’t stamp passports in case it caused issues for the passengers.

  16. @ChrisC

    Was not aware about Canada being smooth in this kind of thing. On the Iran example you are right.

    On the flip side, it would have been a total disaster diverting to any US airport…..They don’t yet have any secure/sterile parts in airports, hence most likely the plane would have been surrounded by heavily armed uniformed security forces and people either left on the plane or people being locked up somewhere in a secure facility. It would have been an absolute nightmare. Wise that KLM decided to forego that ‘option’.

  17. How many frequent flier miles do the passengers get?

    P.S., your Twitter source has the geography wrong. They turned around over Quebec, specifically the Gaspé peninsula, not New Brunswick.

  18. Many years ago flew on NorthWest from HNL to the West coast, somewhere before midpoint something went faulty with the oxygen supply in the animal compartment, so we had to get to the nearest land, which happened to be HNL. So it was like a 5 hour trip to nowhere, but since I was in First, I did not really mind, just ordered another Prosecco and relaxed. That, by the way, were the good old days, when after 25K miles flown you were Gold with NW, and whenever they needed space in Eco, they upgraded Golds to First.

  19. Popo frequently erupts but did not impact MEX yesterday. The ash plume was minor/localized near the volcano and remained south and east of the airport per the VAAC SIGMETs. Other flights operated as normal, so I’m not sure what info they were looking at? I’ve seen ash be much closer to the terminal than yesterday and not heard of this flight turning back before?

  20. I thought Netherlands has some territories in the Caribbean like Sint Maarten? Wouldn’t it be more efficient to send the flight there instead of all the way back to AMS?

  21. KLM takes volcanic ash very seriously, last year I was on SIN-DPS less than 30 minutes from landing in DPS and we turned around to SIN as KLM has a policy not to takeoff or land at night if there is any presence of volcanic ash

  22. On 15 December 1989, KLM Flight 867, en route from Amsterdam to Narita International Airport Tokyo, was forced to make an emergency landing at Anchorage International Airport Alaska when all four engines failed. The Boeing 747-400 combi, less than six months old at the time, flew through a thick cloud of volcanic ash from Mount Redoubt, which had erupted the day before.

  23. I once flew from HNL to Guam and noticed an almost dead guy being wheeled onto the plane. He looked like death warmed over. Four hours into the flight, he died, so of course WE TURNED AROUND. Fuck United.

  24. Is there any way to know if there are horses on one’s plane, either when purchasing the ticket or boarding?

  25. @ron some do. The Tom Bradley terminal at LAX does , although it was out of the way. It’s just that US authorities deem passengers have to go down to immigration.

    The issue is the horses

  26. @icarus – that’s why I am asking about Netherland Antilles which is still under the Netherland’s law and custom… It’s still considered the Dutch territories and is much closer to their original destination

  27. It appears that KLM had valid reasons for turning the plane back, but in my opinion crew rest time was not one of them. If I understand correctly, one of the reasons for returning the passengers to Europe is that if they diverted to a different airport in the Americas, crew rest regulations would have required them to either bring in a new crew or park the plane while the crew rested. It seems to me that what they did was to put KLM’s comfort and convenience ahead of its passengers.

  28. @mark samse you can. It’s a 747-400 combi mixed passenger and cargo and amazing how people are comments without doing simple research easily available online

    There’s a cargo door at the rear and the passenger / cargo area are separated

    They will be retired in 2021

  29. I feel sorry for the horses–all to make money. I hope they had plenty of attention — could they lie down did they have plenty of room and would love to see how they are arranged in a cargo area. Not concerned about the passengers just the horses.

  30. Were the horses for emotional support?

    But, seriously, don’t tell me places like Guadalajara cannot handle horses!

  31. Those asking about diversion airports, none available in Mexico that could handle the horses. Landing elsewhere means not only potential paperwork problems for the pax but again also the horses and can lead to quarantines etc. so they really had to no choice. Difficult decision for the crew and ops people to take given the pax inconvenience it causes but it is what it is. This won’t happen anymore once the 747s have phased out in the near future.

  32. Just had this happen on Iceland Air. It was crazy windy in Iceland and we were closer to our destination in Norway (and even closer to the Bergan airport). For some reason we turned around and flew back to Iceland, where we could barely walk down the steps to deplane. They will not disclose why we turned around, and especially won’t tell us why they didn’t just land in nearby Bergan, which was way closer and also in the same country we were flying to anyway. Then they had us change planes and then they had us wait for over an hour while they searched the luggage for somebody that hadn’t made the second plane. I still want to know why this happened and if there was a problem, why they didn’t land at the closest airport since they claim it was for our own safety and also claimed that Iceland was the closest place to land, though it absolutely was not

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