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Passengers stranded aboard plane in Gary

June 9, 2008 3:55:32 PM PDT
Passengers who say they spent more than six hours stranded on a United Airlines plane on the ground overnight are talking about their ordeal. The flight was diverted to Gary-Chicago Airport late Sunday night after it aborted a landing at O'Hare. High winds prevented the flight from landing at O'Hare. Passengers say after the flight landed in Gary they spent hours sitting on the tarmac with little food and little information on when they would be able to leave.

The plane in question is still sitting on the tarmac as the airlines investigates just what went wrong. Passengers on United Flight 1020 from Denver say the flight got off to a rocky start because of weather, but they never expected what would come next.

"We were hostages in that airplane, they would not let us out," said Don Malec.

That's how airline traveler Don Malec remembers his ordeal aboard a United Airlines flight after the plane was scheduled to land at Chicago's O'Hare Airport around 8 p.m. Sunday night, but was diverted to Gary, Indiana, because of bad weather.

Malec says that's when the real trouble began for passengers who ended up being stuck on the plane for over 12 hours at Gary-Chicago Airport.

Travelers on the plane, like Iris Marreck, were not pleased as they waited for what turned out to be hours more for buses to take them back to Chicago.

"When the pilot said we were going to be prisoners on this airplane, basically, I had a few moments of utter panic. There was nothing to eat. I think they passed out granola bars at one point. There was no extra drinks. It was very uncomfortable," said Marreck.

United Airlines says it's reaching out to customers on the flight to apologize for the incident -- even offering those affected travel and food vouchers.

In a statement, United says:

"We appreciate their patience while we worked to secure safe ground transportation to Chicago. Our captain made the right decision to put the safety of our customers first and to divert the aircraft to Gary when we were unable to land in Chicago because of the weather and other extenuating circumstances, and we will fully investigate the incident to ensure it is not repeated."

Because the regional airport's refueling facility is the only department open on a 24-hour basis, the terminal, tower and bathroom facilities were all locked up tight and off limits to passengers on the diverted flight.

While United blames a break down of communication, officials at the Indiana airport say they were never asked to help out.

"If the airport had been contacted and requested by United to open the terminal at the convenience of the passengers, we would have tried to accommodate that," said Chris Curry, Gary-Chicago Airport director.

Some industry watchdog groups just learning of the incident say, with the growing economic woes of air carriers, air travelers could see more of the same, and most likely without having much financial recourse.

"Unless Congress mandates something, you can't trust the airlines to regulate themselves. We have tried that for so long and nothing -- it's getting worse in my opinion," said Lucy Fitzpatrick, Coalition for Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights.

The coalition is still trying to push through some sort of passengers' bill of rights, but they are continuing to be met with resistance from air carriers.

Both Iris and Don say they would be reluctant to fly United again. They chalk the incident up to a combination of bad customer service, miscommunication and backed up air traffic.


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