scare on President's flight
By Neville de Silva
SriLankan Airlines' flight UL 504 due to leave London Heathrow at
9.45 on Wednesday night was already boarded. Most of the passengers
travelling to Colombo and farther did not know it was a VIP flight.
On board were President Chandrika Kumaratunga and her daughter Yasodara
who had just graduated in medicine from St George's University in
Kumaratunga, already settled down in business class seat 1A, was
glancing through some newspapers. Daughter Yasodara next to her
mother in seat 1C had also picked up some reading matter. The captain
of the flight had introduced himself to the president and all seemed
ready for departure.
passed but the flight was not moving out of its bay at Gate 2. Then
an announcement came over the intercom. Sorry for the delay in the
departure, said the captain. It appeared there was some "discrepancy"
in the number of passengers.
seemed to take much notice of it. Perhaps SriLankan had got its
arithmetic wrong. Maybe a passenger was still lingering in the Duty
Free shops. It is known to happen. A few minutes delay is not the
end of the world, particularly when most passengers were going home.
drink seemed to be in order while we waited. Newspapers rustled,
pillows were patted, all ready for the 10 ½ hour flight.
Suddenly High Commissioner Faisz Musthapha walked into the business
class cabin and leaned over seat 1C to talk to the President. A
foreign couple seated in the same row as the president glanced in
their direction and returned to their guidebook on Sri Lanka, not
knowing, of course, that it was the Sri Lankan President, listening
attentively to her high commissioner.
three minutes later Mr Musthapha left the cabin. But still there
was no signs of the flight moving out of its bay. Ten minutes or
so passed and a rather agitated high commissioner returned to speak
to President Kumaratunga. He was followed by deputy high commissioner
Kshenuka Seneviratne and a couple of minutes later by the High Commission's
Protocol Officer Sunil Moonesinghe.
this point President Kumaratunga's security chief Nihal Karunaratne
was engaged in an animated conversation with the high commission
staff and the president.
moment the president and her daughter were hurried out of the plane.
Security chief Kurunaratne ordered the other presidential security
staff to pick up their hand baggage and leave the plane.
rest of the passengers in business class now sensed something was
wrong. Passengers in the first rows in the economy class would by
then have noticed the president leave the flight.
all passengers were ordered to de-plane. The flight Captain tried
to calm agitated passengers saying that because of the high security
alerts operating, there would be a thorough security sweep of the
it is easier said than done. Apparently British authorities had
to grant permission for passengers already on board to de-plane.
Anyway they eventually did. Had this something to do with the passenger
discrepancy announced earlier?
did indeed. A woman passenger had checked in for flight UL 504.
Her baggage was already on board. But at the very last moment, she
decided not to travel on that flight, or so the story that now gathered
momentum and possibly embellishment, went.
suspicions were roused, given previous incidents where terrorists
had checked in or inter-lined baggage without boarding the flight.
With London on high security, particularly Heathrow Airport, for
possible terrorist attacks, security operations went into high gear
as the aircraft was placed under surveillance while a search was
Kumaratunga and her party were taken to the VIP lounge while the
other passengers who had disembarked waited near the departure gate.
What of the woman who caused the wheels of high-tech security to
start turning fast?
I left the aircraft to await the all clear, I noticed a woman standing
aside just outside holding on to a drag-bag and looking rather frightened.
She could have been in her later 20 or early 30s, I could not really
tell from a momentary look.
multiplied the suspicions of SriLankan airline staff and security
personnel was her story which, of course, I heard second hand. She
had had a quarrel with her husband and decided to go 'home', whichever
part of Sri Lanka that was. Having got to Heathrow and checked in,
she had second thoughts when it came to board the flight. She decided
not to go.
caused consternation among airline staff and others because her
baggage, I was told but cannot swear to it, was already on board.
No doubt she would have been grilled by security at Heathrow. The
flight eventually left about 1 ½ hours late, generally an
uneventful flight, except perhaps for young Yasodara coming home
after graduation and watching the aircraft touch down from the cockpit.
BBC producer hoping to do a series on the work of airport staff
, was observing all tensed activity. No doubt she would have an
interesting tale to tell. The moral of the story is that you should
not quarrel with your husband, especially if you chose to be on
the same flight with the President.