More than 400 passengers and crew who were expecting to be lining up for passport control at Heathrow airport are instead on the shore of the Caspian Sea – with little clarity about when they might complete their journey from Australia to the UK.
Their plane was diverted to Baku in Azerbaijan, reportedly due to a warning of a fire in a cargo hold.
Qantas flight QF1 from Sydney via Singapore to London had previously been making good progress for an early morning arrival at Heathrow.
Data on Flightradar24 shows the Airbus A380, registered VH-OQH, was flying west normally at 36,000 feet over central Georgia at 2.15am GMT. But then it turned around and flew east for 400 miles, landing safely in Azerbaijan.
The double-decker jet landed at Baku airport – the closest in the region with the facilities to handle the world’s biggest passenger plane.
A Qantas spokesperson told The Independent: “The aircraft intermittently alerted the pilots to the potential of smoke in the cargo hold.
“Although it was considered likely to be a sensor fault, the aircraft diverted to Baku as a safety precaution.
“Initial investigations have found no evidence of smoke in the cargo hold.
“We thank customers for their patience and we are working to get them on their way as quickly as possible.”
Qantas does not have a base at the Azeri capital, or anywhere close by. The pilots will also have reached their flight-time limitations and will require rest before continuing the journey. The earliest the plane could continue is believed to be mid-evening, arriving at Heathrow late on Friday evening.
There are no alternative direct flights to the UK, though Turkish Airlines has limited availability on departures from Baku to Istanbul and connecting flights to London.
In addition, travellers booked on connecting flights from Heathrow to Scotland, Northern Ireland or elsewhere will need to try to find scarce seats on Christmas Eve departures.
The aircraft was due to leave London Heathrow for the return trip to Singapore and Sydney at 8.40pm on Friday. It has now been rescheduled for 9.30am on Christmas Eve, arriving over 12 hours late.