Liberian group stranded at BWI

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A group of more than 100 Liberian nationals expecting to fly to Monrovia for the inauguration of their country's - and Africa's - first female president were stranded in Maryland yesterday after a charter flight they paid for never materialized.

It was unclear whether the flight was canceled or never scheduled, but the charter facilitator said the Liberians would get full refunds. Because flights to the West African country are limited and expensive, a Liberian Embassy official said many would probably be unable to make new travel arrangements in time for the inauguration.

The group included the family of Romeo Horton, a Philadelphia economic development official and former Liberian political prisoner who died recently. His remains were to be flown to Liberia for burial.

Travelers from across the United States paid $1,600 for a seat on what they believed was a charter flight from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to Liberia's capital, Monrovia, where Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is to be inaugurated Monday.

"This is a new day for many of them. They want to go back," said Samuel Abu, counselor for public affairs at the Liberian Embassy in Washington. "The embassy is very much disappointed at the organizers."

Abu said the embassy had worked for the past 24 hours on the problem, but all flights to Monrovia were full.

Jonathan Dean, a BWI spokesman, said the Liberians expected to fly with Miami Air International, an operator of charter flights. A spokesman for the company said that "no potential flight was ever contracted, nor were any funds ever received for the potential flight."

Alex St. James, a project manager with the Africa-US Friendship and Economic Development Group, said he was asked to help charter the flight. He declined to say who asked him or with whom he worked.

"Charter flights have to be prepaid," he said. "The obligation to prepay the flight did not occur in time for the plane to take off.

"All I'm prepared to say is that we were asked to facilitate this, and we came up with a reputable charter firm," he said.

He identified the company as Southern Skies, which he said was a charter brokerage firm based on the Gulf Coast.

Bill Mosely, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said no company by the name of Southern Skies was registered with that agency. Charter brokerage companies that organize trips for the public are required to register with the department, which has an aviation consumer protection division.

A phone number listed as a reservation contact for Southern Skies forwarded calls to the cell phone number of Adelaide Gardiner of Silver Spring. Her voice mailbox was full last night.

Rufus Berry of Hayward, Calif., who promoted the charter on the West Coast, said Gardiner asked him to help with the trip and that he was shocked by what had happened. He said Gardiner is a close friend of the Liberian president-elect and had been excited about the trip.

Dean said information about the incident was forwarded to Maryland Transportation Authority police for review.

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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