United passengers forced to sleep in Belfast airport after disruptive passenger diverts flight

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On Saturday night, United Airlines Flight 971 from Rome to Chicago was diverted to Belfast, Northern Ireland, after pilots deemed it unsafe to continue flying due to a disruptive passenger.

According to other passengers on the flight, the passenger had been “extremely verbally abusive” to a woman even before boarding.  Passenger Rick Sliter said to NBC News, “While he was on the flight he had constantly gone to the bathroom to change his shirt four or five times and was staring at people in a creepy way. My understand is that an air marshal notified the flight attendants who spoke with the captain who chose to land.”

Here is video of the man being escorted off the plane:



Diverting in that case makes sense, though it sounds like this guy never should have been allowed on the flight in the first place. At the very least, he never should have been allowed to have so many carry-on bags! Most passengers were understanding about having their flight diverted to Belfast, but it was what happened after that has many of them angry with United Airlines.

The diversion took so long that right before the Boeing 777 was set to resume its journey, the pilot announced that the flight crew had reached their maximum time allowed in the cockpit, and they would not be allowed to continue.

Sliter said, “I applaud the captain and crew for diverting the plane and I understand police had to take some time to remove [the passenger] from the flight, and potentially interview some of the passengers, but then everything was very calm, relaxed almost lackadaisical. At one point the crew were serving ice creams and sorbets to passengers. We were taxying out to leave, refueled, we were on the main runway — then the captain announced it was two minutes over the time they could do time in cockpit due to federal work regulations. People thought he was joking. I fully understand the compliance with FAA regulations but there was zero sense of urgency. Our bags are still on the plane. I can’t imagine why they didn’t a different crew in here as quickly as possible.”

It’s not like United is going to have a spare crew available in Belfast, so that idea is not realistic. That said, the crew of this flight should have known that they were getting close to their time limit, and if they really wanted to get the flight off the ground, everyone should have been rushing to do so as quickly as possible. It doesn’t sound like was the case, at least based on the quotes from passengers.

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The route of the diverted flight via Flightaware
The result was that nearly 300 people were forced to spend the night in the Belfast International Airport. United crew members apparently tried to find accommodation for everyone, but there were not enough rooms available anywhere nearby. This is the second time this has happened this month, as United passengers were also forced to spend the night in Canadian military barracks after a flight was diverted to Goose Bay, Canada.

While flight diversions happen from time to time, it doesn’t sound like United has strong plans in place to deal with them. It’s inevitable that they will sometimes end up in a place with inadequate lodgings, but in both situations passengers complained that they had no idea what was going on, and that United staff were not sufficiently helping. It should not be entirely up to the airport they land at to provide all of the support to stranded passengers, but Belfast was up to the task.

The Belfast International Airport wrote this in a blog post about the diverted flight:

“It was absolutely remarkable how calm, understanding, grateful and gracious the passengers were.

“On a lighter note we heard of one lady who headed into Belfast to make use of this unexpected opportunity to see the sights. I’m also told a family headed to Belfast Castle for tea. There have been some very positive comments about Northern Ireland and what we did on their behalf.”

Airport Managing Director, Graham Keddie, had this to say: “Through no fault of their own, 282 passengers bound for Chicago found themselves spending 23 hours at our airport. The response from our staff and partner organisations was both sensitive and professional, and I would like to say a big ‘thank you’ to one and all for a job well done.”

Flight UA2107 departed at 5:50pm Sunday afternoon, minus one male passenger, aged 42, who was charged with endangering the safety of an aircraft; disruptive behaviour on board an aircraft and common assault.

I would have been one of the people who headed into Belfast to do some sightseeing. I also would have attempted to find a room for the night on my own, as there surely must have been some small place with a bed, perhaps in a B&B or AirBnb. As of this writing, the passengers are still a couple of hours away from landing in Chicago, but at least they are getting closer.

Who do you think should be responsible for taking care of passengers in a situation like this? The airline or the airport?


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