One woman screamed that she might have a heart attack. Another panic-stricken woman clamored for her medicine. The bathroom could not be serviced for nearly six hours and at one point, drinking water was at a premium.
It happened within the confines of a TACA International Airlines flight from El Salvador that sat on the tarmac at Ontario International Airport for nearly nine hours Monday, as officials tried to sort out protocol.
Passenger Alonso Llosa, 28, of Culver City recalled that fellow travelers, who had been growing lethargic from the long wait, got louder and louder during the final stretch. Lights remained on in the plane, causing problems for weary travelers trying to sleep, another passenger said.
Dense fog caused Flight 670, en route to Los Angeles International Airport, to be diverted to the Ontario airport about midnight Sunday, and it remained there until midmorning Monday.
Just why the flight’s 132 passengers had to wait so long on the aircraft -- with little relief -- remained a matter of dispute Wednesday.
According to a second statement issued by airline officials, a series of events beyond their control kept the plane at Ontario.
The original plan was to refuel it and wait for the fog to clear at LAX, TACA officials said. Demand for fuel from other diverted flights pushed the TACA plane’s departure back.
Because it was an international flight, passengers had to go through customs, but customs officials were short-staffed at Ontario, so TACA was told to wait until the plane arrived in Los Angeles, the airline said.
Airport officials gave a different account.
According to a statement from Los Angeles World Airports, which operates the Ontario airport, TACA did not ask that passengers be allowed to leave the aircraft at Ontario.
In addition, it did not request that passengers be taken by bus to LAX, airport officials said.
As the plane waited until midmorning for fog to clear at LAX, the airline did not request that U.S. Customs and Border Protection process passengers so they could stretch their legs or sit in the terminal, airport officials said.
Customs officials remained at the Ontario airport until 1:30 a.m. Monday, processing another international flight.
Customs does not staff the airport around the clock, airport officials said.
Although the airport did not have customs staff on hand to process exiting passengers, it could have summoned them, according to the airport agency.
“It is also unknown why, even after [the airport] suggested, TACA staff did not request clearance to have their passengers deplane for humanitarian reasons,” the agency said in a statement.
At 2:45 a.m. Monday, TACA said, it was informed that customs officials at LAX could not wait any longer for the flight to arrive and that passengers could be processed when the office reopened at 6 a.m.
Llosa was returning from a quick vacation with his girlfriend in Lima, Peru, where the plane originated before stopping in San Salvador.
As the morning progressed, the sleepy passengers’ patience started to wear thin despite updates over the plane’s intercom.
Once the plane’s captain informed passengers that Ontario had no customs officials available to allow them off the plane, the passengers grew more confused.
“We thought we were in this out-of-control situation,” Llosa said.
Water and snacks were provided to passengers about 4 a.m. by airport staff, and emergency responders received “a few reports” of passenger illnesses, airport officials said. No one was hospitalized.
The airline said the items were not provided until 6 a.m.
Because customs officials were not available, no one could board the plane to service its bathroom until 6 a.m., TACA said.
At one point, passengers said, up to three police cars surrounded the plane, making some passengers feel uneasy. One passenger recalled hearing people call elected officials, 911 and local news stations.
Passengers said they heard a woman yell that she might have a heart attack because the police were making her so nervous; another woman was heard saying she needed medication.
“I think it’s not easy after 9/11 to see police around your plane,” said a 26-year-old Eagle Rock resident who was aboard the plane. She refused to give her name.
At 3:15 a.m., the TACA flight’s crew had run longer than its allotted hours, and a change of staff was approved nearly three hours later by customs officials, the airline said.
After a normal servicing Monday morning, Flight 670 left Ontario just before 9 a.m.; it landed at LAX nearly 30 minutes later, about 14 hours after it left El Salvador.
The TACA plane was one of three international passenger flights diverted to Ontario on Monday, said Nancy Castles, a spokeswoman for LAX.
There were no serious problems with the other two flights, airport and airline officials said.