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TACA International Airlines

Airline denies refusing help in 9-hour delay  Dec 04, 2008

TACA International Airlines on Wednesday disputed reports that it turned down assistance from federal authorities as a jetliner carrying 191 passengers sat on the tarmac for nine hours at LA/Ontario International Airport.

Flight670 from San Salvador, El Salvador, was diverted to Ontario airport when heavy fog enveloped Los Angeles International Airport early Monday morning. The airline, airport officials and U.S. Customs and Border Protection authorities continue to blame each other for miscommunication during the lengthy ordeal.

"These delays, caused by circumstances out of the airline's control in addition to generating operational costs, also generate an emotional cost for our passengers," Julio Gomez, a TACA vice president, said in a written statement. "It is only natural that the airline always looks for ways of solving and preventing them, whenever possible."

The Airbus A320-100 jetliner landed at Ontario airport just before midnight and waited to be refueled before moving on to LAX. However, the fueling company told the pilot that it was too busy handling about 40 other cargo and passenger flights that had been diverted to Ontario due to the fog.

In the meantime, customs officials apparently told the airline that only three customs agents were available at Ontario airport, according to TACA's statement. Customs authorities then instructed the plane to wait so that the passengers could be processed at LAX, airline officials said.

But airport officials offered a different version of events.

TACA had never asked for permission to disembark and declined several offers to process the passengers at Ontario, then send them by bus to LAX, said Nancy Castles, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles World Airports, the agency that operates LAX and Ontario airport.

The crew of at least one other diverted international flight allowed the passengers to undergo federal screening at Ontario. Those travelers then took a bus to LAX.

"In retrospect, there were several options available to TACA after Flight 670 landed at Ontario," Castles said. "Had any of these options been exercised, they might have prevented passengers from remaining on the aircraft for so long."

Carlos Martel, U.S. Customs' port director at LAX, did not return several phone calls Wednesday seeking comment on TACA's allegations. Earlier this week, Martel said that TACA's crew declined help offered by airport and customs officials.

Customs agents left Ontario airport by 1:30a.m. as the plane continued to wait for more fuel, according to airline officials. TACA's pilot then requested that customs agents stay late at LAX.

About one hour later, customs officials told the airline that LAX's inspection operations would be closed until 6a.m.

Airline officials then scrambled to find an alternate place to land, but found nearby airports in San Francisco, Oakland, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fresno either lacked customs staffing or were also shrouded in fog, according to TACA's statement.

At least one passenger called 911, prompting Ontario airport police vehicles to surround the plane.

TACA claimed that airport police officers stood outside the jetliner to prevent passengers from disembarking, but airport officials disputed that allegation.

"The airport police department's function is to ensure that unauthorized people do not access the security-restricted areas of the airport, which includes the airfield," Castles said. "Further, airport police did not prevent the aircraft from taking off. This was a dispute between the airline and customs."

The grounded flight was further delayed when a new TACA flight crew took over the plane at 7a.m. because the previous crew had exceeded maximum flight hours.

Airport officials were finally allowed on board at 6a.m. to service toilets and provide passengers with food and water. Medical personnel were also allowed on the plane to examine at least three passengers who complained of minor ailments. None was hospitalized.

After the fog cleared and the plane was refueled, the TACA Flight 670 finally left Ontario airport by 9a.m., landing at LAX about 20 minutes later.

Airline denies refusing help in 9-hour delay
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