Dear readers, one of the more satisfying aspects of being a serious travel writer, is that one is required to interview all kinds of wonderful, interesting people. One such person of interest is the resourceful Air France pilot, who recently managed to squeeze cash money out of his unsuspecting passengers to pay for fuel, after landing his plane in a war zone.
On Wednesday August 15th, Air France flight 562, originally destined for Beirut (the frying pan) set off from Paris, and then went slightly astray when it ended up landing in an even more troubled capital – Damascus (the fire).
How did this happen dear readers? Well, an unwholesome series of events had been set in motion earlier that evening when dangerous protests forced a close-down at Beirut International Airport. The problem? Members of an infamous Lebanese clan had taken several hostages on the Beirut airport road, in retaliation for the capture of another family member in Syria.
The Air France plane, a Boeing 777, nearing its approach, and carrying around 174 passengers, at first planned to divert to Jordan, but the pilot, realizing there was not enough fuel to reach Amman, decided to land in Damascus.
Are you following me so far, dear readers?
So picture this: The plane lands in Damascus and nervous passengers are instructed to keep the blinds down on their porthole windows and not take any photos or videos. But in order to leave Damascus and head for yet ANOTHER destination on the island of Cyprus, the plane needs to refuel.
However, the pilot’s Air France credit card is not accepted in Damascus airport because of US sanctions against Syria.
What to do? Why, ask the passengers to COUGH UP THEIR OWN CASH to pay for the fuel! So starting with First Class and Business Class passengers, the whip-round begins, and according to one news source, the tally reaches $17,000. One cannot make these stories (or totals) up, dear readers!
Fortunately for the stranded, and by this time fleeced, passengers, an alternative, and as yet undisclosed, solution is found and the plane finally takes off for Cyprus. The following day, the same plane lands in Beirut without incident. Below is an extract of my interview with the pilot, a man who knows this part of the Mediterranean like the back of his Landing Gear.
Helga: Captain, when did first you realize that you, along with your crew and passengers were NOT going to wake up in Beirut and smell the burning tires?
Captain: ‘Alors, ‘Elga cherie, eet iz ze moment we ‘ear zat terrible zings are ‘appening in Beirut and zat ze airport is closed.
Helga: Don’t call me ‘cherie’. So you decided to land in an even more dodgy capital, Damascus?
Captain: Eh bien, c’est because we did not ‘ave enough fuel for Amman…..
Helga: But Really! Damascus! One hasn’t been able to get a decent Gin & Tonic there for some time…..WHAT WERE YOU THINKING??
Captain: C’est Vrai!!! Mon Dieu! I must ‘ave been blinded!
By ze way, ‘ave you seen my photo in ze Air France Magazine for July?
Helga: No. So how did passengers react when you told them you needed their cash to get the plane off the ground?
Captain: ‘Elga, at ze start, ze passengers were very – ooh, ‘ow shall I say zis -’timide’ to make ze ‘whip-ronde’, but when faced wiz ze alternateeve terrible – une night in Damas – zay were VERY ‘appy to cough!
Helga: Did you find it surprising that you were able to collect a grand total of $17,000 in cash from the passengers?
Captain: Non, non, not surprising at all! Zees Lebanese ‘ave too much monee and are very riche….In fact, wiz ze ‘elp of zis big naughty clan, I am arranging for another ‘refueling’ next month…
Helga: Good to know that Air France is ‘above board’ in its dealings Captain