Nobody fears the ghost of flight 721. It passes overhead, far above, where it cannot be seen except for the ethereal shades of the contrails it leaves behind it.
It haunts the terminal at Heathrow; the expectant travellers hear its name rattling through the Arrivals board as they stand and shiver against an unseasonably cold draught. It is in the spectral hiss and slither of a luggage belt always missing that one cargo bay’s load. Flight 721 from Malaga, due in at around quarter past two, local time, six months previous. Departed, but never arrived.
The families of flight 721’s crew and passengers occasionally look to the sky, hands shielding their eyes from the sun, blinking. They still receive the shadows of text messages, furtively clicked out to them from somewhere up there, where the polite but firm request to ensure all mobile phones are switched off still stands eternal. “Been held up,” the messages say. “Should b back in the next couple of hours.” or “I’m afraid I’m going 2 miss dinner.”
They look to the sky, and then they scratch their foreheads absently, tut to themselves, and go about their business. It can’t be helped, they think, helpless.
The Arrivals board rattles and clicks through again, the information constantly adjusting, the “Delay” statement for the 721 from Malaga dumbly rising up and on through higher increments. When it still only read 20 minutes, there were people reading it.
But the final person left after two days. He was waiting for his girlfriend to come back after a family holiday, planning to propose right there, on his knees in front of everyone. Now he waits for her at home. He figures just having stuck around this long for her will be quite romantic enough.
Nobody waits in the arrivals lounge for flight 721 any more. The Arrivals board keeps updating, but no one is looking.
There has been no search for the remains of the plane. No headlines or grave announcements by a spokesman for the airline. These things have not happened, because the flight still continues.
It started out well enough. In fact, ‘brakes off’ happened around five minutes early in Malaga, with all passengers on board and settled. It crossed borders, land and sea without incident.
It was on approach to London that the first problem occurred. The pilot was asked to go around again, to allow an earlier delayed flight to land before him. This wasn’t unusual, so he acceded. Then, there was a problem with his angle of approach, so he was told to abort and try again. By this point, weather conditions were deteriorating, and… Well, you see how these things can snowball.
The flight was only ever delayed for a few minutes at a time, so nobody really noticed the point when they stopped noticing it. Regular status reports come through from the crew, but they stopped being noted some time ago. The radio squawks these phantom messages into the control room; they might as well be static or white noise. Ghosts in the machine.
Flight 721 had nothing wrong with it. The journey was, and continues to be, utterly routine, and as such has slipped away from the conscious world, that by necessity has to concern itself with the things that go wrong, rather than those that continue to function within operating parameters.
Apparently, ghost planes never need to refuel.
So flight 721 still circles the airport, up there somewhere. Its passengers late, but never deceased.