Airline passengers let fly with outrage

The Baltimore Sun

Passengers enraged by the hours they spent on a Continental Airlines jet on BWI airport's tarmac without food, water and toilet paper are joining a growing campaign to curb what they describe as "appalling and shameful" airline experiences.

More than 120 people on Flight 1669Y were headed from Venezuela to Newark, N.J., on July 29 when a storm diverted their plane to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. When they finally got a respite in the airport terminal, they said, they were guarded by an "attack dog."

More than 70 of them are demanding compensation, threatening lawsuits and using the Internet to publicize their ordeal. Next month, some plan to attend a "strand-in" in Washington, a rally calling on Congress to enact a "passenger bill of rights."

Airline and BWI officials confirmed that the jet spent several hours on the tarmac, longer than the other 20 planes that were diverted to the airport that day. But their explanations vary.

"It was a completely horrible customer service experience, which Continental wants to pass off as a weather-related incident so that their responsibility is overlooked," said Israel Niezen, a Los Angeles resident who was among those stranded on the plane and who wrote a letter to Continental signed by 72 of the passengers.

"It was a series of bad judgment calls and misinformation to passengers followed by atrocious service throughout."

In the letter, passengers complain of being left on the plane without food and water and with clogged and "completely unsanitary" toilets. No provision was made for children, older people or those with medical needs, including a diabetic and pregnant woman, they said. When, after 12 hours on the plane for a scheduled four-hour flight, they began clapping in protest, a flight attendant threatened arrest, and police were called on board.

"It wasn't enough to not treat us with any decency or respect as customers or human beings, we were now being treated as criminals," the letter says. Once in an airport waiting room, "we were yelled at to keep close to the wall by overzealous officers with an attack dog. The only things we were offered were water and pretzels."

The passengers said they were left to assist passengers in wheelchairs and those who were sick or pregnant passengers themselves.

Diverted planes aren't counted among delays, so government statistics measuring airline performance won't include Flight 1669Y. But the passengers sent their account to the Coalition for Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, founded last year by passengers who had been stranded for hours on an American Airlines flight in Texas. The group, which operates the Web site and a hot line, spread the word.

Airport officials confirmed that the passengers spent from 2 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. on the plane before being taken into the terminal. Niezen estimated that the passengers spent about half an hour inside before being put back on the plane, which BWI officials said took off for Newark at 9 p.m.

The problem, Continental spokeswoman Mary Clark said yesterday, was that so many planes were diverted to BWI during the storm that the airport couldn't handle them. Also, the international travelers required Customs processing, which was not readily available.

Clark said that bathrooms were always available and that passengers with special needs got help, including a sandwich for the diabetic person.

"No question, the flight took a lot longer than planned because of the diversion," she said.

In a subsequent e-mail, Clark said that the airline had begun contacting the passengers and would offer compensation.

BWI says it was Continental's decision to keep passengers aboard the plane for so long. BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean said airport logs show that the plane landed at 2 p.m. and that the captain didn't request aid until about 6:15 p.m., when he feared passengers would get out of hand. The airport found a lounge that didn't require Customs processing and quickly got everyone inside.

"It's the responsibility of the airline to ask for assistance," Dean said. "When they did, they got it,"

Dean said Customs officers and Maryland Transportation Authority police boarded the plane. Dean and a police spokesman said they could not say whether dogs were used. No police report was filed, they said.

Customs officials did not return phone calls yesterday.

Kate Hanni, founder of the Coalition for Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, called the incident another example of lack of consideration for passengers.

"These people sit on a sweaty, stinking, cramped and noise-filled aircraft for hours, and no one helped. In fact, they were rude," Hanni said. "No one seems to appreciate the emotional and physical impact."

Her group has been lobbying for a law that would limit the time passengers could be kept on a grounded plane, better compensate passengers and require better reporting of delays, diversions and cancellations. The group is hosting the rally next month.

This summer has produced some of the worst delays on record, with weather, congested airspace and packed planes contributing to the discomfort.

The U.S. Transportation Department reported Monday that major airlines' on-time performance in the first six months of the year was the worst since 1995, when comparable data were first compiled. Nearly a third of domestic flights were late in June.

The government also reported that 36 flights were delayed for five hours or longer last year. That doesn't count planes diverted to other airports or flights that were delayed and later canceled.

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