DETROIT -- Northwest Airlines said it would never happen again: More than 6,000 passengers were trapped in planes for up to eight hours at Detroit Metropolitan Airport during a January 1999 snowstorm.
But during the worst winter storm since, more than 100 passengers bound for Miami on Monday sat in first one plane and then another for about seven hours during mechanical and weather delays. The entire ordeal, including two breaks in the airport terminal, lasted just over nine hours.
Frustrated passengers used cell phones to call 911 and tell emergency dispatchers they wanted off the plane, passenger Barbara Lefebvre, 45, Milwaukee, told the Detroit Free Press.
"They held us hostage," Patty Mackay, 42, Milwaukee, told the newspaper. "They kept lying to us, saying to us we were going to leave. And we never did leave."
Northwest officials still stinging from the first fiasco said the incident was an isolated one and moved quickly to compensate the passengers with flight vouchers and cash.
"The general reaction was very positive," Northwest spokesman Jon Austin said Wednesday. "People understood the weather. They understood there was a lot of effort there, but not everyone was delighted to go through it.
"The best we can do is offer apologies and try to make amends."
Any problem at Detroit sets off alarms for Eagan, Minn.-based Northwest, which has worked to rehabilitate its customer service reputation since the 1999 snowstorm dumped nearly 2 feet of snow. More than a dozen planes were left stranded on runways -- some with overflowing toilets and no food -- because Wayne County plows couldn't clear the airfield. Northwest now has a policy that passengers not sit on grounded planes for more than three hours.
Glenn Engel, an airlines analyst with Goldman Sachs, said Northwest has posted solid -- in some cases, enhanced -- scores on on-time performance, baggage handling and consumer complaints since the 1999 snowstorm.
"The bad PR from a couple of years ago is starting to fade," Engel said. "Northwest has about 2,000 flights a day. When you have that many, things are bound to go wrong, and sometimes they go wrong in batches. When incidents happen, everyone makes these huge generalizations" in an industry where just 2 percent of flights get canceled on average.
Monday's ordeal was caused by a combination of problems, Austin said.
Passengers were aboard Flight 997 and ready to leave at 10:25 a.m. when a windshield defogger problem forced the plane to wait at the gate.
Travelers waited on board until Northwest switched them to a different airplane. That jet backed away from the gate about 1 p.m., but a problem with a generator held things up again.
"Even in a perfect weather day, that would be an anomalous event," Austin said. "It made for a truly rare event and obviously an unpleasant experience."
When the mechanical problem wasn't solved by 3 p.m., the plane went back to the gate so the 139 passengers could get off and stretch their legs.
With repairs completed by 5 p.m., the plane tried to leave again. But then the snow changed to ice, keeping passengers cooped up inside while the pilot waited for a break in the weather.
At 7:40 p.m., passengers disembarked again, and the flight was canceled.
"They were long stretches. When you add them all together, certainly it was a long day trying to get out of Detroit," Austin said. "This was not an episode that stretched over eight or nine hours."
In fact, 29 people got off during the wait, gave up on flying Monday and were rebooked on flights the next day, Austin said.
But to compound problems for everyone else, gate agents mistook the problem as a weather cancellation. Airlines aren't obligated to pay expenses for stranded travelers, and many passengers slept at the airport.
Northwest officials said agents should have offered hotel rooms, transportation and food for stranded passengers.
When passengers got to Miami on Tuesday, they received a letter of apology, a voucher for a free round-trip ticket and a $200 check to cover incidental expenses. Passengers who missed connections to cruise ships also were flown at Northwest's expense to ports where they could join their ships, Austin said.
As another aspect of reforms following the 1999 storm, Northwest canceled flights in advance Monday by calling passengers at home, alleviating a mob of frustrated fliers at the airport. In total, about 400 Northwest flights in and out of Detroit were canceled Monday.
"We will use our best effort every day to get people where they want to go when they want to get there," Austin said. "Some days the weather will slow us down, but the commitment to what we're trying to provide our customers isn't going to change in cases like that."
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