July 16, 2016: It should have been just another regular intercontinental flight between Stuttgart and Manila via Istanbul, but normalcy was nowhere in the cards on that day. With the attempted coup d’etat in Ankara the night before, all flights in and out of Turkey were grounded both in Ankara andIstanbul. I began to wonder how this was all going to pan out, not just in terms of the political events of the country but all the affected flights. A quick online check nevertheless confirmed that my flights to Istanbul and Manila were still effective, although I had to admit I seriously doubted the validity of the information at that point.
Less than two hours before departing for the Stuttgart airport to catch my flight to Istanbul on Saturday I found out that the flight was cancelled. It took a while, but eventually I was rescheduled for a flight the next day, with the hope that everything would be back to normal.
Sunday morning I re-packed my suitcase with trepidation, not really sure what awaited me at any of the airports. The line for the check-in counter at the Turkish Airlines Stuttgart airport were long and the passengers nervous and impatient. Some had been bumped off their flights like me, others were trying to catch a last-minute flight home, and many others were about to embark on their summer holidays. I don’t think I have ever seen a queue that long in Stuttgart with any other airline and my heart went out to the ground staff whose patience was wearing thin.
The 2:45 hour flight to Istanbul was uneventful. Security check at the transit terminal was tighter than usual and I noticed more guards posted around. Istanbul is such a busy hub that it is difficult to tell whether the chaos is normal or an extraordinary circumstance. In any case, I made my way to the boarding gate. As I handed over my boarding card the red alarm went off and started beeping loudly, but believe me, it was nowhere near as loud as the pounding of my heart. I wondered whether something had gone terribly wrong with the re-booking and was going to end up spending the night in Istanbul after all. Lo and behold, my boarding card was handed back and I was told I had been upgraded to Business Class! Wow, talk about a windfall! At the back of my mind I had seriously considered requesting an upgrade for the long haul leg of the flight (11:30 hours), using all my accumulated miles but I should have put in the request 24 hours prior to departure, so that idea had flown out the window.
I found myself in the middle of a three-seat row in Business Class on a seat that could be flattened out into a bed. The crew handed out blankets, pillows and sheets in preparation for the night rest before the luxurious service began. I have flown Business Class before on other airlines but if you ask me, there are only two or perhaps three other airlines that come to mind that could possibly match the exquisite service of Turkish Airlines, the others being Thai Airways, Japan Airlines, and Emirates. Wi-Fi is complimentary for the entire flight too!
As I felt the flight descend towards Manila, the captain made an announcement. His accent was heavy and his English limited and scripted, so I wasn’t really paying attention, but something about what he said didn’t sit right with me. I could have sworn he had said we were landing in Clark Air Base instead of Manila because he was extremely apologetic (which made me wonder, because the flight had left Istanbul on time and as per ETA, we were due to land almost 30 minutes ahead of schedule). I didn’t say anything but I could sense the unrest throughout the airplane and the crew.
Upon landing at 18:40 local time, I peeked outside the window and knew immediately this was not Manila, not even close. It was too dark. True enough, the announcement was made that we had been diverted to Clark International Airport, Pampanga. Why? For how long? Nobody could provide any answers onboard and we the passengers were at a loss. My seatmate to my right informed me he had often been diverted to Clark when there was too much air traffic in Manila, and there was really no telling how long the layover was going to be. The shortest was one hour, and the longest had been three hours. With that, he stretched out and went back to sleep.
This being a flight full of Filipinos on-board, it didn’t take long before the mobile phones were pulled out and the flurry of texting began. That is how we found out that we were not the first or only flight to be diverted to Clark that day, at least ten other flights had already been diverted to Clark due to runway issues at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA). By runway issues it was meant that the runway had been shut down due to major repairs to the tarmac. All incoming domestic and international flights had been diverted, departing flights had been grounded or cancelled. Rumor had it that the runway would be opened again at 21:00. So we sat back and waited. By 22:00 there was still no word or any sign of departure. There was no more food on the plane to be served and drinks were running low. The crews greater concern was the low supply of the water for the toilets. We were parked out on the runway because all other parking slots at the terminal were full. This meant we had to stay on the plane the whole time.
By midnight I had the sinking feeling we were going to spend the night on the plane. NAIA normally shuts down between 01:00 and 03:00 for runway cleaning and maintenance, but in this case, they were still busy finishing the repairs. You can imagine the tempers flaring on the plain as more and more passengers were losing their patience. At 03:30 we received a refuel, which got our hopes up. Too soon.
It was only at 05:00 that we finally took off from Clark International Airport for a ridiculous 15 minute flight to Manila, and finally landed 11 hours later than the original schedule. One family with us had a toddler with them. They had flown into Istanbul from Zurich on Friday, got caught by the events there and finally caught the flight to Manila on Sunday, only to end up in another mess. That was the most well-behaved toddler I have ever seen though. Another passenger across the aisle from me had flown in just for a two-day meeting and was proceeding to Singapore. He joked he might as well jump on the next flight to Singapore. Worse was the man next to me who had a holiday home in Clark. He could have walked home!
So much as I loved the seat and the pampering in Business Class, the additional hours on the plane ruined the experience for me. What a homecoming!