LOS ANGELES – TACA Airlines blamed refueling delays, fog and a lack of customs staffers for keeping nearly 200 passengers in a grounded airplane for about nine hours earlier this week outside Los Angeles.
The explanation came Tuesday a day after U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the airline did not ask it for permission to deplane the passengers after the flight from El Salvador to Los Angeles was diverted to the Ontario airport because of heavy fog.
The plane sat on the tarmac at the airport, about 45 miles from its destination, while TACA and customs officials tried to work through apparent confusion.
TACA said customs officials told them they had unstaffed for the overnight, leaving its passengers in limbo. CBP has said customs officials were available about an hour-and-a-half after the flight landed in Ontario.
"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," said Julio Gomez, a vice president for TACA.
In a chronology of the incident released Tuesday, TACA said airline staff asked CBP to process passengers soon after Flight 670 landed in Ontario after midnight on Monday.
Airline spokeswoman Claudia Arenas Bianchi said customs officials told TACA there was not enough staff to process the passengers in Ontario — which prevented the airline from busing the passengers to Los Angeles.
She said the pilots were told to continue to the Los Angeles International Airport, but that the plane had to wait because the refueling company at Ontario was overloaded with diverted flights.
By the time the airplane refueled, customs staff in Los Angeles had gone home, Arenas said.
Los Angeles and Ontario airport officials have denied TACA's claims, saying customs remained open until 1:30 a.m. to process another regularly scheduled flight.
Meanwhile, the grounded passengers — some of whom called the police emergency dispatcher — were fed water and crackers but were not allowed to get off the plane for what was scheduled to be a 4 1/2-hour flight from San Salvador.
In the early morning, police cars surrounded the plane on the tarmac and two police officers were positioned outside the aircraft's door to keep passengers onboard, Arenas said.
The airline considered sending the plane to airports as far away as San Francisco, Phoenix and Las Vegas where passengers could be processed and admitted into the country, Arenas said. But those airports either did not have customs officials ready or were also experiencing bad weather.
TACA asked officials to authorize a crew change on the plane at 3:15 a.m., but customs did not respond until 2 1/2 hours later, Arenas said. It is not clear why the airline did not request that passengers be allowed to disembark and wait in the terminal at this time. Airport officials have said this is commonly requested for humanitarian reasons.
The flight arrived in Los Angeles at 9:20 a.m. — about 15 hours after the passengers boarded.