Canadian airport downgraded after passengers stranded for 16 hours on frozen runway

After a planeload of United Airlines passengers experienced a 16-hour delay in the extreme cold of northern Canada, the carrier has downgraded the airport’s suitability for diversions.

On 19 January, United flight 179 from New York was part-way into its journey across the Arctic to Hong Kong when the flight crew decided to turn back to Goose Bay, a military airport in Labrador, because of a medical emergency.

The passenger was taken to hospital, but a door used during the evacuation could not be closed due to the extreme cold – as low as -45C with wind chill.

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The 250 passengers spent the next 16 hours on the aircraft as they waited for another jet to rescue them. They were not allowed to leave the plane because immigration staff were not available in sufficient numbers to process the unexpected arrivals.

Environment Canada has since said “Goose Bay, NL saw a total of 174.8 cm of snow” during January – almost six feet.

United Airlines has now designated Goose Bay as an emergency option – meaning other options will be considered except in extreme circumstances.

Before the 8,065-mile route began nearly 20 years ago, a range of diversion airports were inspected. The alternate airports available to pilots on the 16-hour trip are limited, as the most direct route goes right across the North Pole.

The actual flight path chosen will vary from one day to the next depending on weather.

The Independent has studied the route used over the past week for the daily service from New York’s Newark airport to Hong Kong. Most of the flight paths went over Baffin Island, whose airport at Iqaluit is frequently used for diversions.

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