The smell of smoke appeared quite suddenly while the crew was serving lunch, which is probably why no one on the plane thought to immediately question the acrid air. I wasn’t even aware that something was amiss until I tried to ask the attendant for a refill on my drink
“Hold on just a moment”
The man had stopped his routine of serving, and was looking around the cabin for something that only he could see. That’s when I noticed the undeniable tinge to the air, an absolute smell of trouble. The attendants stopped serving, pulled their cart back to the galley behind us, and I could see one of them making a phone call. In this small time, the smell suddenly got much worse, and more people were looking around with the beginnings of what may have been a panic.
In a moment, the attendants were back, opening each compartment on the plane one by one and pulling out the contents. With each one, I had a great fear the there would be some fantastic explosion, the yet undiscovered pile of smoldering something-or-other finding itself suddenly fed a big dose of oxygen. I was surprised that they did not bother to see if the outsides of the compartments were hot, but then again, they were, at this point, visibly anxious. Burning electrical circuits have a very distinct smell, somewhere between ozone and a mix of plastics and metals. This was, to the letter, the smell that now characterized our economy cabin. Sitting directly over the wing, it was clear that the smell was coming from the vents on the floor and the ceiling.
The attendant who appeared to be the most in control hustled back to the phone and made another call. In a moment, two of the pilots were in the aisle next to me, looking extremely concerned. They consulted for a moment, relocated a few passengers sitting across the aisle from my seat, and then began the process of trying to remove pieces from the floor, perhaps hoping to find anything that might resolve the matter. At this point, it seemed clear to me that there was an obvious choice in front of us; if you are in command of a plane that is obviously suffering a mechanical issue, find the nearest airport and request to land. We were still an hour from Guangzhou, and the last thing I wanted was to be left with no apparent answer to what could be nothing less than a major red flag. I envisioned a burning suitcase in the cargo hold below, a set of wires that had shorted out, a rodent that might have fouled the inner workings of the wings. And yet, there was nothing to show. The pilots turned off the lights and the overhead displays, as well as the air circulation system, and the smell was gone.
We landed in Guangzhou without fanfare, but the moment we stopped, the air was turned back on an the cabin was once again filled with the odor of charred mystery object. We disembarked and went to collect our bags. Despite being in a relatively small terminal, the bags took almost an hour to be delivered, leading me to speculate that a team was probably climbing not only through the jet, but also through all of our stuff to see if they might rule out a cause. Should they have found nothing in the bags, I can’t imagine what process would need to be undertaken to find the issue in the plane itself. I can only hope that on my next trip north, I am no so unfortunate as to ride the same plane again.