VS001 - The nightmare flight that could help all travelers

Virgin Atlantic has blamed US authorities for forcing them to keep passengers on board a grounded plane for four hours, the latest phase of an escalating row that could eventually result in better protection for passengers landing at US airports.

A spokesman for Virgin Atlantic says that US Customs officials denied a request from the aircraft's pilot to allow the passengers to disembark and wait in an airport lounge, despite the fact that the plane had no air-conditioning, food or water and some passengers had fallen ill.

The flight, a regular transatlantic service between London Heathrow and New Jersey's Newark, was rerouted to the smaller Bradley International airport in Connecticut because of bad weather.

On arrival, the aircraft sat on the tarmac from 8.20 PM until after midnight, when passengers were finally allowed to disembark and were returned to New York in buses.

According to national newspaper USA Today, US customs has denied the accusation, although it admitted that there were not enough officers to start clearing passengers.

In December 2009, the US Department of Transportation passed a law banning US airlines from keeping stranded passengers in a plane for more than three hours - but the law doesn't apply to foreign carriers.

After the ordeal of over 300 passengers onboard Virgin flight 001, two of whom were hospitalized, federal transport officials are examining closely whether any rules were broken, with US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood saying that it reinforced his belief that passengers were entitled to "fair treatment" when they fly.

LaHood recently voiced his support of new requirements for international airlines to provide support for stranded passengers on the tarmac, but Kate Hanni, the Executive Director of consumer rights website FlyersRights.org, says that US authorities must go much further, treating US and international airlines equally.

"Given the horrific, inhumane and dangerous situation that took place on the Virgin Atlantic Flight last night, DOT must step in immediately to include international flights in the 3 Hour and Air Conditioning Rules," she said June 23.

"Numerous passengers were hospitalized after being exposed for over four hours to temperatures well over 100 degrees - we are fortunate there were no fatalities."

Last year, staff at Rochester airport in Minnesota were heavily criticized for refusing to allow passengers off a Continental ExpressJet aircraft that was eventually kept on the ground overnight with limited food or water, an incident that contributed to the passing of the legislation in December.

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