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Sleepless In Siberia: Air France Passengers Endure Three Unexpected Days In Irkutsk

Greetings from Irkutsk!
Greetings from Irkutsk!

What should have merely been an arduous 11-hour flight from Paris to Shanghai turned into a three-day ordeal in Siberia.

Passengers aboard a regularly scheduled Air France flight from the French capital to China's largest city were forced to make an unexpected stop in Irkutsk on November 11 after smoke was detected in their Boeing 777-300ER.

It was the first bit of bad luck for the 282 passengers on Flight AF116, but not the last.

Lacking Russian visas, they were forced to remain on the tarmac in subzero temperatures in Irkutsk for hours before authorities finally relented and had them taken to nearby hotels for the night.

Air France dispatched a new plane for them on November 12, but that one, too, had technical problems. The pilots had no choice but to announce to their weary passengers that a hydraulic leak had been detected and the plane would not be taking off.

The local English-language Siberian Times quoted the Irkutsk airport press service as putting the snafu down to the subzero temperatures in the Siberian city on the shores of Lake Baikal.

Friends of those stuck in Irkutsk and others vented their frustration on social media, with some taking aim at Air France's handling of the situation.

Writing in French on Twitter, the CeclieParisPagesBlog mockingly said that "it makes you want to travel with a French company @airfrance #oupas."

Another Twitter user, Le Bon Sens, claiming a friend was among the tired travelers, tweeted that it was "unreal and scandalous" that a second attempt to fly them out of Irkutsk had failed.

For those stuck in Irkutsk, a favorite exile destination in the past for enemies of the Soviet authorities, there was abundant time to chronicle their bad luck on social media.

But because they had no visas, they were confined to their hotels, as one of the travelers, Corinne Lee, head of social media at Louis Vuitton, explained on Instagram.

"So we can't take different flights, we can't take our luggage with us, we have been booked hotels but we can't get outside. we are waiting for a new @airfrance plane and a new crew to take us to Shanghai."

The Siberian Times noted that the travelers weren't prepared for the local Siberian weather, noting that many were "dressed in light autumn clothes and shoes."

Despite the discomfort, Lee and others, many of whom appeared to spend a significant amount of time in their hotel's pub, were appreciative of the hospitality bestowed upon them.

The passengers were eventually flown out of Irkutsk on November 12, although the airline’s press department, in announcing the development, only added to the confusion:

"The aircraft left Irkutsk at 02:08 (Paris time) and landed in Irkutsk at 05:45 (Paris time)," it said in a press release.

The airline apologized for the "inconvenience and significant delay experienced," saying "the safety of its customers and crews is Air France’s absolute priority."

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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