More than 100 stranded at Kenai Airport after United Airlines flight diversion

Editor's note: This story has been edited to correct the model of airplane that spent the night in the Kenai airport. It is a 737 — a smaller aircraft than originally reported.

 

At least there were puppies.

And for about 18-hours, the more than 100 passengers who spent the night at the Kenai Municipal Airport got to listen to and play with the four furry animals who got free reign over the Era Alaska counter until Saturday afternoon when the flight took off and headed back to its original destination in Anchorage.

The passengers and six crewmembers of United Airlines flight 1425 from Chicago to Anchorage were grounded in Kenai from about 7 p.m. Friday until 2 p.m. Saturday.

A winter storm forced 14 flights to be diverted from the Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage according to an Associated Press article.

“Apparently we circled (the pilot) said about 15 minutes, but it was like 30-40 minutes when we hovered in the air until he told us that we were about to run out of gas,” said Amina Spring. She and her son are new to Alaska and were Fairbanks-bound where Spring’s husband relocated with the military.

After they landed, the group sat on the tarmac.

“For four hours,” Spring said. “They said (Transportation Safety Administration) wasn’t here so we couldn’t get off the plane. It was like 11:30 (p.m.) before they let us off.”

When the Boeing 737 landed in Kenai, the plane had to refuel and be de-iced.

Several passengers spoke about problems with refueling as the group sat on the tarmac.

United Airlines Director of Corporate Communications Christen David said there was no set time that it typically took to refuel an aircraft.

“The time it takes to refuel and (de-ice) an aircraft depends on several factors such as the weather conditions, the number of crew working, the type of equipment available, etc.,” she wrote in an email. “There were several other planes in line ahead of flight 1425 to be refueld and (de-iced), so we had to wait for those to finish.”

The process took so long that the pilots and crew could not longer legally operate the plane.

The pilot reached his quota for working hours as designated by The Federal Aviation Administration and the flight had to be delayed.

According to FAA regulations, the maximum flight time allowed for a pilot during a working day is nine hours, followed by a mandatory 10-hour uninterrupted rest period.

Passenger Steve Read said by the time everyone was let off the plane, the toilets had begun to back up.

Once inside the airport the pilots “kind of snuck out the back,” Read said. He watched the pilot decline to make an announcement that he was leaving the premises or provide any information about a future take off time, Read said.

Further complicating matters, a lack of TSA staffing at the airport in Kenai meant passengers could not be screened before boarding the plane.

Mary Bondurant, airport manager, said the Kenai airport is a normal diversionary airport for Anchorage.

“But they know we don’t have TSA here and once they get people off the plane, then we have to make arrangements with Anchorage because they’ll be coming in an unsecured aircraft,” she said. “I’ve been on the phone all night with TSA and all those arrangements are made at that end ... there was talk of bringing the TSA down here and then screening the passengers.”

The last announcement made by the airline was that transportation and hotel accommodations would be made available for the travelers, Read said. Sitting upright at 11 a.m. in an airport chair he hadn’t slept or left the airport since.

A few passengers took it on themselves to make reservations at local hotels. Greg Fillmore said he booked a room for himself at the Quality Inn. After receiving his room key from the receptionist, she was immediately told Fillmore could no longer have the room, because “the rooms were for pilots, not passengers.”

United did offer to pay for everyone’s breakfast at Odie’s Deli inside the airport. However, of the five hotels in Kenai, at least 70 rooms were still available last night by midnight, and multiple reported not having any contact with United Airlines about making accommodations for their customers.

David said that typically United Airlines personnel would be on hand at an airport to assist passengers who had been diverted, however the airline does not regularly fly into Kenai.

She said the a customer care team booked hotel accommodations for as many customers as Kenai had rooms available.

“Hotel availability in Kenai was extremely limited. I wasn’t able to confirm how the hotel vouchers were handled in this case,” she wrote in an email.

At least 75 people spent the night at the airport, many draped over chairs and tables or on piles of luggage in the airport lobby.

The three customer service agents on duty were left to accommodate the influx, said Customer Service Agent Ruthy Anderson, an Era Alaska employee. It was the busiest she had ever seen the airport.

“It was a very, very big deal to unload the passengers,” Anderson said. Through out the night Anderson and her co-workers made trips in their own vehicles to Walmart to buy food, water, pillows and blankets.

Several passengers who were critical of how United Airlines handled the situation spoke highly of Kenai Airport staff.

Andrew Spicher, of New York, said he was surprised at how local staff, like Anderson, went out of their way to make the passengers comfortable.

“She brought us pillows from her house,” he said. “She is a saint.”

Anderson said everyone who was stuck in the airport handled the situation very well. Staff reopened the airport bar so the passengers could cool their heels and have a drink.

“We were able to say cheers and welcome to Alaska,” Anderson said.

Still, despite the friendly local accommodations, several passengers said they were angered by the whole experience.

Spring and her son both had asthma attacks during the night, she said. They were not allowed to return to the airplane to get their luggage.

“Luckily I’ve been having these my whole life, I know how to calm myself down,” she said.

But, the experience has soured her on flying with United, she said.

“Just, how can you just not have a protocol for this? As big as United is, how?” she said.

Spring and the other passengers will be compensated, however the details are not specific. Some spoke of receiving $75 vouchers, others of $300, others of $500.

David wrote in an email that United does not discuss the specifics of compensation with the media.

After spending an uncomfortable night in the crowded airport, Sandie Keen and Read had become acquainted. The two heard from Keen’s daughter that the flight had been rescheduled to depart for Anchorage at noon. They left around 2 p.m.

“To sum up, we were not informed by United,” Keen said. “We’re all disappointed with United.”

 

Reach Kelly Sullivan at kelly.sullivan@peninsulaclarion.com and Rashah McChesney at rashah.mcchesney@peninsulaclarion.com

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