It was late September 2001 and the whole trip suddenly seemed ill advised – a trip to the Philippines, ten years on from the previous visit, to see how communities had progressed and how successful aid projects had been. A morning flight had been booked from Manila to Zamboanga, on the southern island of Mindanao. It was a place plagued with terrorism and insurgency and was on the Foreign Office list of places not to visit.
The instructions were plain – we would be met by a driver at the airport. Should the driver not arrive, we were to take the first available taxi into the city to a house belonging to the Jesuits and they would book us a return flight and transport us back to the airport. Under no circumstances were we to go into the city and under no circumstances were we to travel alone.
Fear is always much more manageable on a full stomach; unfortunately, something eaten the previous day, upon arrival in the country, menu had decided to make a comeback. The nausea combined with the tropical heat and the jetlag to create a feeling of utter misery. “You are a fine shade of clerical grey”, my companion quipped.
The taxi arrived and took us to the bus station-like domestic airport. The plastic chairs thwarted any attempt at sleep and the prospect of an airline seat seemed overwhelmingly inviting. The flight was with Air Philippines, which someone somewhere had confused with Philippine Airlines when booking the tickets. Air Philippines was, and still is, banned from European air space, for operating below essential safety levels. The prospect of the seat seemed less inviting than it had been.
Being bulky Europeans, we had been allocated seats in the aisle that led to the emergency exit. My heart sank as I stared out at the wing, while the tailfin carried a Filipino registration, the top of the wing had an Irish registration painted on it. How many thousand times had this old 737 crossed the Irish Sea?
A flight attendant came and explained to us that in the event of ‘landing in water’, we would be responsible for opening the emergency exit, and gave a detailed description of how this should be done.
Drifting off to sleep, pleasant slumbers were interrupted by a second flight attendant shaking my shoulder and explaining that I must listen while she described the procedure for what we must do if we landed in water. I did my best to look attentive and listened to the monologue. She moved on and sleep returned.
A few minutes later, a third attendant woke me up to say that she must explain what we must do in the event of an emergency landing. It was too much. “Have you crashed before?” I snapped.
She stepped back in surprise. “No,” she said.
“Good. Let’s hope we don’t crash this time”.
I closed my eyes.
“They don’t do irony”, growled my companion.
Those moments on an elderly 737 were evoked by the discovery that next year’s trip to the Austrian pistes begins with an 0605 flight from Dublin on an old 737 that is used for carrying post at night and passengers in the daytime. One trusts that it does not have a Filipino registration on the tailfin.