Monday, December 8, 2008

TACA Airline Passengers Stuck On Plane For 9 Hours in LA

TACA International Airlines on Wednesday disputed reports that it turned down assistance from federal authorities as a jetliner carrying 191 passengers sat on the tarmac for nine hours at LA/Ontario International Airport.

Flight670 from San Salvador, El Salvador, was diverted to Ontario airport when heavy fog enveloped Los Angeles International Airport early Monday morning. The airline, airport officials and U.S. Customs and Border Protection authorities continue to blame each other for miscommunication during the lengthy ordeal.

"These delays, caused by circumstances out of the airline's control in addition to generating operational costs, also generate an emotional cost for our passengers," Julio Gomez, a TACA vice president, said in a written statement. "It is only natural that the airline always looks for ways of solving and preventing them, whenever possible."

The Airbus A320-100 jetliner landed at Ontario airport just before midnight and waited to be refueled before moving on to LAX. However, the fueling company told the pilot that it was too busy handling about 40 other cargo and passenger flights that had been diverted to Ontario due to the fog.

In the meantime, customs officials apparently told the airline that only three customs agents were available at Ontario airport, according to TACA's statement. Customs authorities then instructed the plane to wait so that the passengers could be processed at LAX, airline officials said.

At least one passenger called 911, prompting Ontario airport police vehicles to surround the plane.

TACA claimed that airport police officers stood outside the jetliner to prevent passengers from disembarking, but airport officials disputed that allegation.

"The airport police department's function is to ensure that unauthorized people do not access the security-restricted areas of the airport, which includes the airfield," Castles said. "Further, airport police did not prevent the aircraft from taking off. This was a dispute between the airline and customs."

The grounded flight was further delayed when a new TACA flight crew took over the plane at 7a.m. because the previous crew had exceeded maximum flight hours.

Airport officials were finally allowed on board at 6a.m. to service toilets and provide passengers with food and water. Medical personnel were also allowed on the plane to examine at least three passengers who complained of minor ailments. None was hospitalized.

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