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

Posted: March 15, 2014 - 9:20pm  |  Updated: March 16, 2014 - 2:36pm
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Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion  One of several passengers in a group headed to Anchorage talks about obtaining a refund from United Airlines after flight 1425 was diverted to the Kenai Municipal Airport Friday and passengers were stranded for about 18 hours in Kenai, Alaska.  More than 100 passengers, many of whom slept on the floor of the airport, were told their overnight stay was necessary as the pilot and flight crew had exceeded the hours the Federal Aviation Administration allows them to fly.
Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion One of several passengers in a group headed to Anchorage talks about obtaining a refund from United Airlines after flight 1425 was diverted to the Kenai Municipal Airport Friday and passengers were stranded for about 18 hours in Kenai, Alaska. More than 100 passengers, many of whom slept on the floor of the airport, were told their overnight stay was necessary as the pilot and flight crew had exceeded the hours the Federal Aviation Administration allows them to fly.

At least there were puppies.

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 that originally reported.

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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Suss
3104
Points
Suss 03/16/14 - 02:15 pm
2
0
747 or 737 ?

A 747 would be an impressive sight at our little airport. If it was a 747 how did they get off the plane? Those jumbos are way too tall for our little ladder/stair ramps. Nice story about nice people helping out during a massive snow dump in Anchorage.

Unglued
228
Points
Unglued 03/16/14 - 11:38 am
2
0
yet another horror story

The good-old days of flying are definitely over. I haven't enjoyed a flight anywhere for at least 10 years. Passengers won't get better treatment until they demand it. When will an airline provide polite, comfortable service, they way they once did? The execs ought to have to travel on one of their own airplanes incognito in coach class, with the 3-year-old kicking him in the back, and fat people on both sides of him, one of them with a bad cold, and the baby screaming on the other side of the aisle. Not even noise-cancelling headphones is going to turn that into a nice trip. I've gotten to where I dread traveling by air. I would almost rather drive.

Rashah McChesney
38
Points
Rashah McChesney 03/16/14 - 02:38 pm
0
0
@Suss

Good catch! I went back and checked the e-mail we got from United and it was indeed a 737. Now I'd like to know what it would look like to have a 747 at our airport.

jlmh
345
Points
jlmh 03/16/14 - 03:38 pm
1
0
Suss, perhaps they used the

Suss, perhaps they used the emergency exits with the slides for de-planing?

I love how the Clarion shot holes in United Airlines' excuse about "extremely limited accommodations" in Kenai, by confirming 70 vacant rooms at hotels the airline hadn't even contacted. What a mess. You don't leave 100 passengers sitting on the tarmac for four hours with overflowing toilets while the pilots sneak out the back and score hotel rooms. Or keep asthmatics from their medication because retrieving some luggage is too much work. Shame on them.

Suss
3104
Points
Suss 03/17/14 - 05:14 am
0
0
Arctic Winter Games 747

I was told about an international (non- U.S. owned) 747 landing at Kenai. What they did to make an exit for the plane was novel and a nightmare. Take one semi and flatbed trailer, build a raised crib platform on the deck, lift the roll about stair ramp onto the newly built raised platform and then tie down. Pound together 2x4 hand rails (for safety) and back the trailer up to the 747. One more stair ramp brought along side the trailer for the final exit downward to the tarmac. Now I would not try this unless you were dealing with the very talented athletes attending the Arctic Winter Games. Again, do not try this at home and do not believe this story as it was told by someone at closing time in Kenai Joe's.

RSharrad
5
Points
RSharrad 03/17/14 - 04:21 am
0
0
Passengers Have to Take SOME Responsibility

After seeing what passes for public decorum in an airport, I don't blame the crew for "sneaking" out the back way and not addressing the passengers. The crew has NO idea of when the plane is going to be able to depart - that would depend upon the Kenai airport, deicing, Kenai and Anchorage weather, etc. That decision is made in Chicago at United's operations center. And as I much as I hate to say it, airlines are not under legal obligation to compensate passengers in the US for weather disruptions. Yes, it would be nice if they did, but they're not required to. And in my travels, the airline always says, "You're on your own". And why does it fall to the airline to wait on the passengers hand and foot to find them hotel rooms? Not only is that not required by law, but I'd rather take the initiative and get my own hotel room and make sure I'm taken care of than wait for someone with little to no interest in my comfort address my needs. And please, if you have prescription medications, or in this case ashthma inhalers, DON'T leave them somewhere you don't have immediate access. And no, flying isn't a lot of fun. But even before 9/11 there were screaming babies, children kicking seatbacks, and even fat people. I think people tend to romanticize the pre-9/11 flying experience just a little bit too much.

Unglued
228
Points
Unglued 03/17/14 - 05:36 am
1
0
Romanticizing the experience

RSharrad: Yes, we tend to romanticize the pre-9/11 flying experience a little bit too much, but only a little. Those of us who were around to fly in the DC-6s and the "Connies" have memories of our families taking us to the airport, having dinner with us, and seeing us off at the gate. At the other end, we were met at the gate by loved ones. Stewardesses were invariably young, slender and better than average good-looking. They didn't belong to unions that told them they didn't have to help passengers stow their bags. They were always polite and friendly. There was an occasional overweight passenger, but they were the exception. The mood of both passengers and crew aboard a flight in, say, the 1960s, was upbeat, where now it tends to be on the surly side: "Let's get this over with." Airlines and their employees have (rightfully) won a reputation as being adversarial to their customers. I miss the days when we could "Fly the friendly skies of United."

kenairesident
68
Points
kenairesident 03/17/14 - 12:53 pm
1
0
"act of God"

Because weather is considered an "act of God", airlines are not responsible for accommodating stranded passengers. If it's a mechanical issue, then they are. I agree that the passengers shouldn't have sat on the airplane for that long, but again, it's TSA regs that going into a secure area at the airport requires screening. Maybe they should have just dropped the passengers off at the ERA gate in Anchorage.. that's not a secure area.

jlmh
345
Points
jlmh 03/17/14 - 05:48 pm
0
0
Not that hard

RSharrad, it sounds like at least one passenger did make his own hotel arrangements, but they bumped him at the last minute in favor of the pilots getting a room instead.

And bad weather is no excuse for trapping passengers on the tarmac for four hours without toilets. If some passenger used that unexpected stop in Kenai as a chance to sneak a bomb on board, that would be a truly unprecedented event. What a silly "precaution." Common sense would be to have the TSA screen them as they de-planed in Anchorage. TSA never screens Kenai-to-Anchorage passengers on regular flights, so what's the difference?

If the airline doesn't feel obligated to pay for hotel rooms, then fine. Just say so. Don't invent some absurd story about Kenai not having any hotel rooms available.

RSharrad
5
Points
RSharrad 03/17/14 - 06:04 pm
0
0
Is so that hard

I believe the FAA has a "three hour" rule for on the tarmac with a possible exception for a fourth hour if the crew has reasonable expectation to be able to operate the flight. If I waited three hours, I'd rather wait another 45 minutes and get out than mandatory taxi back to the gate, offload, etc. As for the hotel guest getting the key in his hand and then having the hotel call for it back, that definitely goes in the "fishy" category to me, especially with allegedly 70 hotel rooms (although not at the same hotel.) And where's the sense is screening the passengers at their arrival location? The threat is over and done with. The only reason to screen on arrival is if the passengers have to exit through the "clean" or sterile part of the airport or for any connecting passengers. And the reason TSA doesn't screen at Kenai is because of the size of the plane. If 737s flew into Kenai on a scheduled basis, TSA would have to screen the passengers. Them's the laws. Not convenient, but laws are rarely about convenience.

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