An article by Kamal Paul in the Sunday Times of the 20th of November 2011 describes his experience on board a Comtel Air plane from Amritsar in India to Birmingham. The plane landed in Austria for a stopover. Once on the ground the passengers were informed that, in order to take off again, they needed to pay Euro 23,800 for the fuel and landing tax. He was then requested by a stewardess to collect the money from the fellow 179 passengers so that they could take off again and get to their destination. This account reinforces the authenticity of a story I heard in the early 90s about the fate of a Zambia Airways DC 10 on a flight from Lusaka to London.
Lusaka in the 90’s was a place of lots of socializing and we were frequently invited for lunch on Sundays. The weather was very suitable for outdoor activities so it was a highly enjoyable time.
During these gatherings I heard many stories. One, told by the pilot himself stuck in my mind until today. George, I believe his name was when we met him, was a retired commercial pilot. He started bush flying and gradually built a career until he became a pilot for Zambia Airways. At that time ZA was the flag airline of the country and, I believe, it was Government-owned.
To compete in the international routes with the likes of UTA and British Airways, ZA leased three McDonnell Douglas DC10’s that did the route to New York, London and other European and Asian destinations. George was one of the pilots that flew this aircraft. The flights were successful as they offered good prices, most likely subsidized by the Government. The situation was not sustainable and the inevitable happened: ZA ceased operating in 1995 and several of its planes were impounded at several airports where the company had debts.
George told us about an experience he had during one of the many times he flew to London in the early nineties, just before the company closed down. He was flying a DC10 with its full passenger capacity as was normal on these flights. As is routine, at some prudent distance he established contact with the control tower of the London airport (probably Gatwick at that time, I do not recall). He informed the airport of the coordinates of the flight and eventually requested permission to land.
To his shock, the control tower refused to let him land as the company had a large accumulated landing fees debt. Apparently the management of the company had been warned about the situation and the consequences that they would face if attempting to land there. Although very upset with ZA, there was no time for recrimination as a fast solution was necessary.
He pleaded with the tower and explained that he had a full plane and that, although the fuel would be sufficient to divert to another airport, he did not have the necessary authorization to do so. He waited for a reply with bated breath!
Eventually the control tower asked him if he had a credit card, as they could allow him to land by charging the landing fees to his card. Aware that it would take him months to recover the money, he realized that he had no option but to agree and eventually managed to land as planned.
Luckily for him, he was reimbursed before the company ceased to operate!