Panic on the tarmac: Lengthy wait for passengers in Oakland ordeal

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Two passengers who became unruly were arrested and ultimately released, while another passenger was hospitalized after waiting for nearly four hours on the tarmac and another house in the line at customs at Oakland International Airport Thursday afternoon, passengers and Alameda County sheriff's officials said.

The Aeromexico Flight 622 plane was supposed to land at San Francisco International Airport, but couldn't, because of the dense fog.

So instead, the flight was diverted to Oakland's airport about 10:30 a.m., according to passengers and Sgt. Ray Kelly said.

But passengers weren't let off until about 2:30 p.m. That's because the Oakland airport wasn't prepared to have customs agents greet that at that time. In a statement, Aeromexico officials said: The airline "does not have any operations in Oakland, for which special authorizations for the local airport authorities had to be requested to disembark the passengers."

The wait was excruciatting for many, especially because passengers said they were not getting timely information and there was no food on board.

Deserae Torres, 37, of Newark, said she was on her way home from Guadalajara, Mexico when she spoke to KTVU at 1:30 p.m. from inside the stationary Boeing 737 at Oakland International Airport.

“Time is just passing, passing, passing,” she said, noting that the flight attendants are being very “snappy.”

Near the fourth hour of sitting on the tarmac, sheriff's deputies responded to reports of an unruly passenger. Initially, two of the upset passengers were arrested and turned over to the FBI on suspicion of interfering with an aircraft, Kelly said. One of the men "threatened that he was going to open the aircraft door and exit the aircraft on his own accord," Kelly said.

But others on board told KTVU that the arrests were unwarranted and that the men were only trying to help the situation. One was a nurse who was trying to help paramedics get into the plane, passengers said. "They were just as frustrated as we were," passenger Ivan Garcia said after he was released from the plane. "They were just more outspoken. They didn't cus. They didn't threaten. They were just tired." 

About 6:30 p.m., the sheriff tweeted that the the two "unruly passengers" were released after speaking with authorities.  

Additionally, Torres said she made her own call to the police at 2:20 p.m. because a woman on the plane was having a panic attack and another one reportedly fainted.

Torres said there was a girl up front who looked about 13 who turned “beet red” and appeared to be suffering from anxiety or claustrophobia. The flight attendant told her there “was nothing she could do,” Torres said.

Torres’ own 6-year-old daughter has a bad ear and stomach infection and her antibiotics are under the plane. There is no food for anyone and the flight attendants said that if anyone tried to get off, “the police would come and they would be arrested.” 

“It’s really, really hot,” Torres said. “We’re being treated like prisoners.”

It's unclear exactly how and when the customs agents were made available, but the plane started pulling into Gate 1 around 3:30 p.m. and passengers were escorted through customs shortly afterward, Kelly said. 

The airline will arrange for those who need to go to SFO to get a ride there, he said. The Passenger Bill of Rights, which states that people on international flights cannot be held longer than four hours, does not apply to foreign carriers.

As for Torres, her anger subsided, and relief set in after she was released. Still, she said, "I don't want to get on a flight anytime soon."