World and Nation

Blizzard Leaves Numerous Passengers Stranded in Northwest Airlines Planes

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: The headline of a New York Times story in the World & Nation section of the Tuesday, Feb. 6 issue should have reflected the fact that the story was about passengers stranded recently by American Airlines, not Northwest Airlines.

Talk about history repeating itself. On New Year’s weekend in 1999, a blizzard left thousands of passengers stranded for hours on Northwest Airlines planes at the airport in Detroit as food and water ran out and toilets became unusable.

The debacle made headlines and prompted cries for federal legislation to force airlines to adopt better customer service procedures. The airlines prevailed against legislation, though, promising that they would police themselves.

But eight years later, much the same thing happened again. On Dec. 29, severe thunderstorms forced 121 American Airlines flights to divert from Dallas to other airports in the region.

Although initial published reports focused on just one flight that was diverted to Austin and sat on the tarmac for more than eight hours, at least three fully loaded flights were stuck that long.

These passengers were subjected to conditions identical to those in 1999: fouled toilets and air, little food and water, and a maddening dearth of information from the airline about what was happening to them.

“This was an amazing example of being treated like we did not matter,” said Melissa Moe, who was on American Flight 1424 from San Jose, Calif., to Dallas. The flight was diverted to San Antonio, where the plane sat for about eight hours before passengers were allowed off. Her 13-year-old son was traveling with her to a holiday in Florida.

“I have never felt so powerless, especially powerless to be able to take care of my child,” Moe said.

The first reports about the Dec. 29 situation focused on Flight 1348, from San Francisco to Dallas, which was diverted to Austin. A passenger on that flight, Kate Hanni of Napa Valley, Calif., spoke out to denounce the indifference that she said American Airlines showed toward her and her fellow passengers, and to demand a campaign for a federal bill of passenger rights.

Now, largely because of efforts by Hanni, more passengers on other flights stranded that day are coming forward.

Sue Peterson of Morgan Hill, Calif., who was on the American flight from San Jose to Dallas, said her seatmate was a woman in her 80s. “We had already gone through our carry-ons and shared what food we had,” Peterson told me the other day. “About five hours into this, a flight attendant came through with some glasses of water and said there were a few airline snack boxes still available. She sold one of them for $4 to this elderly woman. We were like — they’re charging her?”

Moe, who lives near Santa Cruz, Calif., said the interminable wait on a plane where conditions steadily deteriorated, and without information on what was happening, was “a horrific experience.” She added, “I can’t believe they had the audacity to sell snack boxes for $4 after we had been held hostage on this plane at this point for five hours.”

American Airlines said it has sent apologies and vouchers to people stranded Dec. 29.