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For Some, the Skies Over Burlington Are Not So Friendly

Local Matters


Published June 29, 2011 at 10:02 a.m.

An electrical power surge that knocked out Burlington International Airport’s runway lights and cancelled a half-dozen flights in mid-May was an “act of God,” according to the airport’s insurance carrier.

That’s bad news for five passengers who sought reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses and air-travel fees when their Burlington-bound flight was forced to return to Philadelphia, just minutes before landing at BTV.

Customer service is no longer a given for airline travelers, but when Rutland resident Jeff Hawkins and Darcie Johnston of Montpelier were denied claims of $250 and $110, respectively, they felt compelled to speak out.

“We’re not talking about a lot of money here,” noted Johnston, a professional lobbyist. “I’m not sure why they have to ask their insurance company for approval — why can’t they just simply cut a check?”

Hawkins, too, thinks the airport is “hiding behind” its insurance company to cover for the fact that it didn’t have a backup plan in place when the runway lights went out.

“Ultimately, they are the ones responsible for this. I’m sorry, but this was just inexcusable, and I think we all had a very valid reason for being upset,” said Hawkins. “I don’t know how they can put this under the ‘act of God’ category and try to equate it to a weather-related situation.”

Hawkins and Johnston were on a United Airlines flight on the night of May 18 when, about an hour into the flight, the pilot announced the runway lights at Burlington International Airport had failed. The plane circled overhead to give technicians on the ground time to fix the problem — to no avail. Eventually, they turned the plane around. Back in Philly, passengers had the option of a foil blanket in the terminal or a list of hotels across the Delaware River in New Jersey.

Hawkins submitted a claim for about $250 to cover the Philadelphia-to-Burlington leg of his trip; Johnston asked to be reimbursed for a night’s stay in a hotel and the extra parking charges she racked up in the Burlington airport parking garage — a total of about $110.

The two were among five passengers from the rerouted Philly flight who asked for cash, said Robert McEwing, the airport’s interim director.

Why won’t the airport pay these few folks? It was a decision based on principle, not money, said McEwing.

“The events of May 18, 2011, while unfortunate for all involved, were unforeseen, and there was nothing the airport could have done to prevent them. We have pursued every course of action with our insurance company and were found to have no liability in this incident. As such, we will not be able to offer any form of compensation to any of the passengers affected,” McEwing wrote in a letter sent to Johnston and Hawkins.

In a telephone interview, he added, “It is my opinion that we live in a world where everyone expects to be reimbursed for inconvenience. Flights are delayed every day due to weather, mechanical failures on aircrafts, the need for crew rest and a multitude of other factors. This is one of those cases.”

No airport can be expected to reimburse people for issues beyond its control, noted McEwing. The airport also doesn’t want to set a precedent of making arbitrary decisions based on any one person’s flight plight. That’s why any reimbursement claim is turned over to the airport’s insurance carrier.

“While I understand their inconvenience and am sorry for them, if you approved their requests, I’m not sure where you’d stop,” said McEwing.

He said it wasn’t a lack of power that caused the problems on May 18. The airport had power when a transformer blew, causing the surge that knocked out the runway lights. No one knows if a separate power surge caused the transformer malfunction, he added.

Hawkins said he’ll think twice about using BTV in the future. The airport in Albany, N.Y., is almost as convenient for the Rutland resident.

“Burlington Airport is in the customer-service industry, and they have a responsibility to make sure planes can land and can land safely. This is their number-one job,” said Johnston. “If they can’t do it and aren’t accountable to passengers, then they can’t be held accountable. I think the lack of a backup plan for the lights going out, and a policy to pay customers for additional travel expenses when the airport is at fault, is representative of much bigger problems with the Burlington Airport.”

She could be talking about the airport’s cash-flow problems as a result of its recent parking-garage expansion. Or another incoming plane — from Detroit — that had to land somewhere else on June 19. The Delta flight was minutes away from a delayed, 1 a.m. landing at BTV when the pilots rerouted the plane to Syracuse because, they told passengers, “the airport was closed.”

Passenger Nancy Wasserman found it odd, because other people on the flight had spoken to friends and family shortly before takeoff, and the airport was bustling with people.

What happened?

Burlington airport officials had put the word out to airlines that it would close from midnight to 5:30 a.m. so maintenance crews could paint lines on the runway. But they intended this to be a so-called “soft closure” that allowed late flights to land. Airport workers even reached out to flight crews en route to let them know they were, indeed, open. The crew on the flight from Detroit didn’t get the message; it assumed the airport was closed to all air traffic.

This story has a slightly happier ending than the one shared by Johnston and Hawkins. When the plane landed in Syracuse, the airline — Delta — paid for the passengers to be housed and fed. “They took good care of us without even being asked,” said Wasserman. “They knew we were being inconvenienced. It was still a hassle, but it was better than being left stranded.