Nfld. & Labrador

Border Services vague on why passengers stranded in Goose Bay for 16 hours were kept on plane

What has changed since 187 people were taken off a diverted flight and housed at CFB Goose Bay in 2015? Questions remain after 250 passengers were kept on a plane for 16 hours in Labrador recently.

What has changed since 187 people were taken off plane and housed at CFB Goose Bay in 2015?

Passengers were left aboard this United Airlines flight for 16 hours, and told the Goose Bay Airport didn't have the capacity to process so many of them following last weekend's incident. (@sonjaydutterson/Twitter)

Nearly five days after 250 passengers were kept on a plane for 16 hours in Labrador, the Canada Border Services Agency still isn't saying why they weren't allowed to disembark.

Late Saturday night, United Airlines Flight 179 from Newark, N.J., to Hong Kong was diverted to Goose Bay Airport because of a medical emergency.

Medical personnel met the plane and took the passenger to hospital, while the remaining passengers were kept on board and told the airport didn't have customs capacity to handle so many people.

With the plane unable to take off due to a malfunctioning door, the airline brought in another plane that took the passengers back to Newark, leaving around 2 p.m. the next day. 

The agency declined CBC's request for an interview and provided an emailed response instead Tuesday afternoon, saying the Goose Bay airport is designated "an authorized AOE/15," which allows for the clearance and refuelling of scheduled air traffic "not exceeding 15 passengers and crew."

Decision rests with the pilot: CBSA

CBC asked the agency whether that means Goose Bay Airport doesn't have the capacity to handle unscheduled flights with more than 15 people aboard, and if so, what has changed since nearly 200 people on a diverted United Airlines flight in June 2015 were allowed to get off.

In a followup response from the CBSA on Thursday afternoon, the agency did not answer those questions, but repeated Goose Bay's designation as an authorized AOE/15.

In the 2015 incident, United Airlines wound up apologizing to passengers because they were housed at CFB Goose Bay, while the flight crew were put up at a hotel.

CBSA's statement Tuesday noted its normal operating hours at Goose Bay Airport are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week, but the followup response Thursday said its hours are 8 a.m. to midnight. A spokesperson explained via email that staff work in the office until 6:30 p.m. but the CBSA continues to provide service either from Goose Bay or from its Gander office.

"There are procedures in place in the event of a flight diversion landing outside of normal CBSA working hours," reads the Tuesday statement, which also says the decision to request to deplane rests with the pilot of an aircraft. On Thursday, the agency's statement noted flights that arrive between midnight and 8 a.m. and require clearance are handled "on a cost-recovery basis."

Paramedics responded to a medical emergency on the plane that required crew to make an unplanned landing at the Goose Bay airport last Saturday. (Submitted by Sonjay Dutt)

Asked if the pilot requested deplaning, the agency said Thursday afternoon it received a request from United Airlines around 6:15 a.m. GMT (2:15 a.m. in Happy Valley-Goose Bay) for CBSA service to deplane passengers. However, the agency later corrected that time to have been 6:15 a.m. NT, so 5:45 a.m. in Labrador. 

The statement said the agency began a "rotational disembarkation" for groups of 20 to 30 passengers at a time while waiting for the rescue plane, but did not state what time the first group of passengers was actually allowed off the plane.

The status of the passenger taken off for medical reasons is unclear, as the agency said it doesn't speak to the specifics of any one particular case.

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