ISLAMABAD/ABU DHABI // Passengers said anxious confusion broke out aboard an Etihad Airways flight from Abu Dhabi to Islamabad, after an anonymous bomb threat that turned out to be a hoax. The Airbus A330 left Abu Dhabi just before 10am on Wednesday with 197 passengers, most of them expatriate workers from the GCC, US and Europe taking advantage of off-season travel bargains.
The initial mood on Flight EY231 - scheduled to take just over three hours - was one of happy anticipation of reunion with family and friends, passengers said. No one read anything into the captain's warning to keep seat belts on. "We expect light turbulence over Pakistan," he said. It was not until 90 minutes into the flight that passengers first suspected that all might not be right. An announcement, made only in English, said the flight would land in Karachi because of a "technical fault". Since many passengers could not understand the language, confusion ensued, a passenger said.
As the plane neared Karachi, many agitated passengers switched on their mobile phones, eager to tell relatives, gathered at Islamabad's Benazir Bhutto International Airport, of the delay. "You either switch off that phone or I will confiscate it," they were told by cabin crew. As the plane taxied to a halt at the western end of the runway, about 500 metres from the terminal, many passengers expressed anger towards the airline.
"We are paying customers and have rights you can't deny us," said Zulfiqar Kiyani, 42, a heavy-machinery operator who works in Riyadh. By that time, window-seat passengers were watching the Airport Security Force personnel outside the aircraft. Finally, passengers were asked to leave the plane. With no buses in sight, they stood waiting on a patch of mud next to the plane, sweltering in the midafternoon sun.
After another half-hour, the passengers were surrounded by security personnel and not allowed to move. Asked whether a security situation had arisen, the senior security official on the scene replied: "Thank God you have all made it here alive. We received a telephonic bomb threat." As the word spread, some passengers reacted with scepticism. "I don't believe that," said Mohammed Sarmad, 27, who drives a taxi in Dublin. "They are trying to cover up the airline's shortcomings."
It emerged later that a threatening note had been found in the jetliner's lavatory. After the Etihad jet was searched and no bomb was found, it took off again around 5.30pm local time. Yesterday, an Emirates flight from Australia to Dubai was forced to turn around an hour and a half into the journey because of a burning smell in the aircraft. The flight, EK425, an Airbus 340-500 travelling from Perth, returned to the Australian city and landed about two hours after take-off. Passengers disembarked normally, Emirates said.
"Emergency services were activated as per standard procedure but were not required," Emirates said in a written statement. "Safety was not compromised at any point." Joe Hattley, a spokesman for the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, said Emirates has 72 hours to report their findings, as is the normal routine. * The National