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Questions Remain Regarding Canceled American Airlines Flight

Sept. 6, 2006 — A planeload of passengers was left in Miami Friday when American Airlines canceled its Flight 795 from Miami International Airport to Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas.
American spokesman Minnette Velez said Wednesday from San Juan that Cyril E. King Airport sent out an official communication that the airport would close at 10 p.m.
She said Flight 795 was delayed and would not arrive until after 11 p.m., so the airline canceled the flight.
Not so, said V.I. Port Authority officials. "There was no notem [an aviation term denoting official communications concerning airport conditions] on Friday night," V.I. Port Authority Director Darlan Brin said Wednesday.
Brin said the flight was due in around 9:30 p.m.
St. Thomas resident Krim Ballentine was waiting to board that flight. He said it looked like the plane would be full with about 20 V.I. residents, plus other people traveling to St. Thomas.
He said that after American gate agents announced the flight was canceled because the airport was closed for construction, St. Thomas residents began calling their families to report the delay.
He said that one of the callers, who was returning from an American Legion convention, telephoned her sister at around 6:45 p.m. The sister was at the American Legion Hall in Crown Bay.
Brin's special assistant, Joe Cranston, happened to be sitting near the sister. He said the sister handed over the phone to him so the woman could ask why the airport was closed.
Cranston said he told the woman that the airport was not closed.
"We could hear the DC-3s coming over our head," he said.
He said a Liat flight audibly arrived next.
Ballentine then called Cranston on his cell phone, which has a speaker function. Ballentine increased the speaker volume so waiting passengers and gate agents could hear for themselves that Cyril E. King Airport was still open.
Ballentine said that it initially appeared that American wasn't going to pay for hotel rooms and food for the stranded passengers, but after hearing that the airport was open and listening to the passengers complain, they did hand out vouchers.
"One woman told me she had only $20 in her pocket and there were three of them," Cranston said.
Velez said she was not sure if American distributed hotel and food vouchers.
Cranston and Brin both said that even if the airport had closed — which was not the case Friday — it would open so planes could fly in, even if they were very late. Both added that were an announcement made to close the airport for construction, they would hold up the construction if a plane was due.
"If we know you're coming, we'll delay the work," Cranston said.
Brin said that VIPA's fire department remains on duty when a flight is expected late.
They both pointed out that American's Thursday night flight from Miami had arrived at 12:05 a.m. Friday. And they said that late arrivals do happen regularly.
Cranston suggested that American was in a bind because Tropical Storm Ernesto had caused flight delays across its system.
He said that pilots can only fly so many hours, so American may not have had enough staff to fly the plane to St. Thomas.
Cranston and Brin both said that this is not the first time American has claimed the airport was closed when it wasn't.
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