A British Airways Airbus A380 superjumbo went on a 10-hour flight to nowhere on Sunday night after the leaders of a military coup in the West African nation of Niger suddenly closed the country’s airspace, fearing an international military intervention to restore a civilian leader to power.
British Airways flight BA56 took off from Johannesburg, South Africa, bound for London Heathrow at around 7:45 pm on Sunday night for what should have been a 10-and-a-half-hour flight to the United Kingdom.
The flight path usually sees the massive double-deck aircraft fly an almost straight line up the middle of Africa through Zimbabwe and Zambia, The Democratic Republic of Congo, and onwards through Chad, Niger and Algeria.
The route specifically avoids Libya due to the danger of flying through Libyan airspace, which borders Nigers to the North East.
On Sunday night, flight BA56 had already made it to Chad and was about to cross into Niger when the military junta abruptly shut the country’s airspace. Flying around Niger to the West would have added around 1,000 miles to the flight path meaning there wasn’t enough fuel to get the aircraft all the way to London.
As a result, the pilots took the decision to perform a 180-degree turn and fly all the way back to Johannesburg, getting back to South Africa’s financial capital in almost the same time it would take to have flown to London on a normal day.
But the BA56 service certainly wasn’t the only flight hit by the sudden and dramatic closure of Niger’s airspace.
A second British Airways A380 flight from Johannesburg to London Heathrow, which was meant to depart at 9:20 pm, was delayed at the last minute and is currently scheduled to take off on Monday afternoon – presumably with extra fuel to fly around Niger.
And a British Airways flight from Cape Town to London Heathrow ended up diverting to Lagos in Nigeria to get extra fuel to complete the flight. That was the same strategy that German flag carrier Lufthansa used for its Johannesburg to Frankfurt service – marking the first time that a Boeing 747-8 aircraft has landed in Lagos.
Meanwhile, an Air France flight from Johannesburg to Paris ended up diverting to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast to take on additional fuel due to the closure of Niger’s airspace.
Unfortunately, Lagos Airport isn’t equipped to handle A380 Superjumbos and other airfields across West Africa didn’t have the resources to handle so many diverted flights. As a result, there were cancellations, diversions and air returns across Africa on Sunday night as airlines responded to the closure of Niger’s airspace.
A British Airways spokesperson told us that they had apologised to customers due to an issue outside of its control. In a statement, the airline added: “We’ve apologised to those customers affected for the disruption to their journeys. Our teams are working hard to get them on their way again as quickly as possible.”
The group behind Niger’s coup – which goes by the name of the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP) – fears a group of West African states are about to intervene militarily.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) had set a Sunday evening deadline for the CNSP to end their coup and restore a democratically elected leader to power.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.