Trauma for St Albans tourists after security scare at Turkish airport

A WINTER break for a St Albans couple turned into a nightmare when they found themselves at the centre of a security scare on foreign soil.

Julia and Graham Matthew of Lancaster Road were flying to Northern Cyprus via Istanbul when their Pegasus Airlines flight was diverted to Istanbul’s Ataturk airport due to fog at Sabiha Gokcen, also in Istanbul. The plane was then held for over four hours before moving onto the runway as a dispute between a Turkish family and the airline ensued.

The family were expecting the body of a dead relative to be transported via the aircraft and were angry that it had not been loaded onto the plane and so refused to leave the plane or allow it to take off until the situation was resolved.

Seasoned travellers Mr and Mrs Matthew, both 54, said while the family held the plane on the ground, there were just two announcements made by the Dutch pilot about the situation over the four hours.

Mrs Matthew said that as tensions rose and the atmosphere became increasingly volatile and aggressive, passengers outside the aircraft began scuffling with each other.

She said: “It was a very unnerving experience for us all, particularly as there was nobody official explaining what was happening.

“Turkish passengers were having to negotiate with the family who were understandably upset and the police were only called three hours into the stand-off because a passenger threatened to smoke a cigarette.”

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Mrs Matthew went on to describe how during the four hours, people were going on and off the plane unchecked and the hold beneath the aircraft was left open and wasn’t secure.

“There was an elderly couple on the plane who were becoming increasingly anxious and the man needed to take medication, but nobody would give him any water.

“In fact, we were only able to get water once the situation was resolved and then we had to pay for it.”

Once the plane was given permission to take off, the couple noticed with alarm that no headcount appeared to take place, even though many passengers had been on and off the aircraft, and no safety announcements were made prior to take off.

The flight had to go via Turkey as it is the only country that recognises Northern Cyprus as a sovereign state, but even before the fraught situation in Ataturk, Mr and Mrs Matthew had experienced delays which only added to their frustration.

Mrs Matthew added: “There were many moments where we were filled with suspicion and total confusion but we don’t blame the family who were, understandably, deeply upset – that’s not our issue.

“What we’re concerned with is that there’s no international standard of security and despite many attempts to contact British authorities and raise our concerns since we returned to the UK, there’s been no response from the Foreign Office, the Civil Aviation Authority or the Department of Transport.”

The couple have now made contact with MP Anne Main whose office is investigating the situation further. As it is a transport security matter, the Department of Transport will respond to Mr and Mrs Matthew’s concerns and a response from minister Theresa Villiers is expected in the next few days.

A spokesperson for Anne Main said that they would be raising Mrs Matthew’s concerns with the DoT that the initial response when she contacted them was unsatisfactory.

Pegasus Airlines were contacted for comment but did not respond by the time we went to press.