AA Passengers Stranded in West Palm Beach

May 11, 2007
American Airlines passengers en route to Miami from Port-au-Prince were stranded 10 hours onboard a plane due to bad weather and no custom facilities.

May 10--A three-hour flight from Port-au-Prince to Miami earlier this week turned into a 10-hour ordeal, after the plane was diverted to West Palm Beach with passengers unable to get out due to a lack of Customs clearance.

American Airlines Flight 1908 left Port-au-Prince at 5:12 p.m. on Sunday. It didn't arrive in Miami until 3:05 a.m. on Monday.

During it all, the people stuck on the plane only got a bag of chips to eat, said passenger Mouna Boulos, who lives in Delray Beach and also has a home in Haiti, where she went to attend a wedding.

"They kept us almost 10 hours. This is not fair," said Boulos, 51, who had to pay $150 for a taxi from Miami to Delray, and finally got home at 5 a.m.

The issue of airlines holding passengers onboard grounded planes has come under the scrutiny of Congress since 1999, when Northwest Airlines passengers were stranded for hours in Detroit due to a blizzard.

But it sparked particular outrage in February this year, when JetBlue Airways passengers were held for more than 10 hours at New York's JFK amid heavy snow and frigid temperatures. The meltdown prompted the airline to enact a Customer Bill of Rights, which offers vouchers in various amounts for ground delays.

In April, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing on consumer rights, including holding passengers on delayed flights. But the committee is not yet moving any legislation, Jim Berard, director of communications for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Wednesday.

Instead, Congressman James Oberstar is pushing the airlines and the Department of Transportation to work together to come up with a set of rules for handling such incidents, Berard said.

It was one calamity after another for the 145 passengers onboard the Airbus A300 to Miami: a delayed departure; severe thunderstorms in South Florida; an ill passenger requiring paramedics upon landing at Palm Beach International Airport; the need for a new crew after the existing one's shift ended; a second, pregnant passenger who required paramedics; then more thunderstorms, further delaying a second departure.

The flight to Miami, scheduled to depart at 4:45 p.m., left Port-au-Prince 27 minutes late, and had been scheduled to arrive at 7:50 p.m., American spokeswoman Martha Pantin said. But by the time it neared Miami, heavy thunderstorms covered South Florida, preventing it from landing, first at Miami, then at Fort Lauderdale, she said.

So the plane was diverted to West Palm Beach, arriving at 8:52 p.m.

Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Tammy Jones confirmed that from 7:51 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday, aircraft landing at both Miami and Fort Lauderdale had to be diverted to other airports due to weather.

Yet, it wasn't until several minutes after Flight 1908 landed that American notified Customs and Border Protection, said Zachary Mann, special agent and spokesman for Customs and Border Protection. The airline requested permission to remove the ill passenger, who was in the custody of paramedics and met by a CBP officer, he said.

But the rest of the passengers could not be processed.

Customs' hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily at Palm Beach International. And at no time did American ask Customs for special processing, which it could have done, he said.

"If we had been requested to process the plane, we would have been able to work with the airline and respond to that," Mann said.

In fact, only when Customs was advised that a pregnant passenger needed to be transported off the plane by paramedics more than four hours after it landed, did Customs realize the plane was still there, he said. It didn't depart West Palm for Miami until 1:14 a.m.

"In this whole process, it was our belief and our hope that the flight would leave earlier," Pantin said. "That is why we did not call Customs."

Pantin said the airline has begun to reach out to passengers to apologize. "It was an unfortunate set of circumstances."