Passengers stranded on remote Canadian military airfield for 15 hours amid -20C weather in ‘colossal disaster’ New York-Hong Kong flight

Simon Calder

At the moment when 250 passengers and 15 crew aboard United Airlines flight 179 from New York should have been sound asleep in Hong Kong, they were beginning their 15th hour on board the plane stuck on the ground at a military airfield in the northern region of Labrador in sub-Arctic Canada.

The Boeing 777 had taken off on schedule on Saturday afternoon from Newark for the 8,052-mile flight across the Arctic to Hong Kong.

About three-and-a-half hours into the flight, as the jet was making landfall above the coast of southwest Greenland, a passenger became ill.

Initially the crew decided to return to Newark. But one of the passengers, Chris Liew, told The Independent: “At some point, the pilots diverted to Goose Bay.

“We landed at about 9.30pm local time [8pm New York time].

“The sick passenger was taken off and the plane refuelled to replenish the fuel dumped before landing.”

But instead of taking off, the plane remained on the ground.

“A couple of hours later we were informed there was a problem with a door and a mechanic was called,” said Mr Liew.

“Evidently it couldn’t be fixed and the pilots began working with their operations centre for a new plan, essentially involving a replacement aircraft that either took us back to Newark or on to Hong Kong or some intermediate airport closer to Hong Kong.”

The delay became so extended that one passenger set up the diversion’s own Twitter account, Save United 179.

Goose Bay airport, just outside the settlement of Happy Valley, is a Canadian Armed Forces base. A local resident, Philip Earle, told The Independent: “Your Royal Air Force built a lot of the infrastructure here such as hangars and barracks which still exist.”

The airfield is on flight routes between Europe and the west coast of the US, and occasionally receives diversions. But as border officials do not work at night, passengers could not processed officially into Canada.

“All that time, one aircraft door was open and it was minus 28F (-33C) outside,” said Mr Liew.

“The aircraft was adequately warm for those of us sitting away from the open door. Some unfortunate flight attendant was posted at the door for safety and security, I suppose.”

No food or refreshments were offered until the 12-hour mark.

“UA, this is the all time worst customer experience I have ever had,” tweeted one passenger, Rose Kazan. “Shame on you. Stranded for 12 hours.

“We need you guys to act on this colossal disaster and help get this plane moving.”

United Airlines told The Independent about what happened after the diversion: “Prior to departure, the aircraft experienced a mechanical issue. The airport did not have customs officers overnight so we were not able to let customers depart the aircraft.

“An alternative aircraft is being flown in to transport customers back to Newark. We apologise to our customers and our crew is doing everything possible to assist them during the delay.”

The replacement aircraft landed at around 12.30pm local time (11am New York time) and carried a fresh crew.

But as attempts to fix the broken door continued, Chris Liew confirmed: “We’re at 15 hours on the ground and counting.”

The eventual delay was 16 hours, with the return to New York 26 hours after the original flight had left.

In November 2018, a planeload of Air France passengers travelling from Paris to Shanghai spent three days in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, after a smoke detector was activated.