Airline: Arrest threatened if Conn. plane unloaded

Stephen Singer
Associated Press
via Breitbart
6/24/2010

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – The pilot on a Virgin Atlantic flight that spent several hours on the tarmac after being diverted to Connecticut had asked for permission to let the passengers get off the plane, but a customs official threatened to have them arrested if they did, the airline said Thursday.

Customs officials denied the airline’s allegation.

The trans-Atlantic flight’s captain was told by a customs official at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks that passengers couldn’t get off the plane until more immigration officials arrived, Greg Dawson, an airline spokesman in London, said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. It took more than two hours for the officials to arrive, he said.

Storms diverted the London-to-Newark, N.J., flight. Passengers sat on the tarmac in Connecticut for four hours beginning around 8:30 p.m. Tuesday into early Wednesday in rising heat and darkness. Travelers said they were offered water but no food; some fainted.

A federal rule limiting tarmac time to three hours does not apply to international flights.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not receive a call from the pilot, and no one from the agency refused a request to allow passengers off the plane, said Theodore Woo, an agency spokesman in Boston.

Customs officers headed for the airport “as soon as we got the call at 11 p.m.,” Woo said. At that point, customs had enough officers to “escort passengers to a safe area,” he said.

Airport officials have said there was only one customs official at the airport Tuesday night when the flight arrived in Connecticut.

“That’s outrageous. If it’s true, it’s unacceptable,” passenger rights advocate Kate Hanni said of Virgin Atlantic’s allegation. She said she expects U.S. Transportation Department officials to listen to any audio recordings made of conversations between pilots and customs officials to verify the allegation.

Transportation officials declined to comment during an investigation.

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