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Plane makes emergency landing at RIAC

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City Councilor Angela Moore volunteers Wednesday to serve beverages and snacks to passengers and crew of an American Airlines flight delayed for seven hours at the Roswell International Air Center. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

Community members help inconvenienced passengers cope

An emergency landing by an American Airlines plane early Wednesday morning at the Roswell International Air Center led to a community response to deal with what could have been a severe situation but instead turned out to be a matter of trying to make inconvenienced passengers as welcomed and comfortable as possible as they dealt with a lengthy, unexpected delay.

American Airlines indicated that 147 passengers and six crew members were aboard Flight 1611, an Airbus 321, that left Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport at 5:57 a.m. Central Standard Time on a direct flight to San Diego, California. But a smoke alarm in the cargo area of the plane required the plane to be diverted to Roswell, where the plane landed at 7:49 a.m. Passengers and crew remained in Roswell for more than seven hours until a new plane could arrive and be boarded to take them to their destination.

According to American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein, the situation was determined to have been caused by a faulty sensor, and no injuries or difficulties to passengers or crew were reported. The replacement aircraft arrived in Roswell at 1:31 p.m. and took off about 3:20 p.m. The flight originally was due to arrive in California at about 8:54 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.

Scott Stark, Air Center director, said he was scraping ice off his windshield early this morning when he was notified that a plane with an emergency would be landing in Roswell. He said many different businesses, city departments and organizations then began to respond as he remained at his house, where phone service was assured, to coordinate response efforts. 

Mark Bleth, Air Center marketing director, said that Eastern New Mexico Medical Center prepared for the possible need to treat people for smoke inhalation or injuries. Cavu Aerospace, an aircraft dismantling business operating at the airfield, provided a tall stairway to accommodate a larger aircraft than typically used for passenger service at the airport. Buses were made available for emergency transport, fire trucks were at the ready, and Mayor Dennis Kintigh and staff with various city of Roswell departments were notified.

“Quite honestly, this is exactly what we are trained to do,” said Stark. “We have to do a drill every three years, and this is exactly what we do. This didn’t turn out to be a major catastrophe, thank God, but this is exactly what we train to do, and those were the triggers that we pulled and got things going and the right people involved and it came out well. Then the second part is just being host, just good hospitality. Once you’ve got a 150 people here who expected to land in sunny, balmy California but they are in 20-degree Roswell, they are maybe not as happy as they could be.”

American Airlines crew, AV Flight employees, staff with the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp., and the city’s Visitors Center, Public Affairs Department and Air Center staff all pitched in to help, including by providing and serving donuts, cookies, coffee, pizza, water and beverages. Folding chairs were also made available to accommodate a larger number of visitors than typical, as American Airlines continued to operate its passenger service to Dallas and Phoenix during the day. “Alien” stress balls also were given to passengers.

“This is our city, so we need to make the situation better,” said City Councilor Angela Moore, one of the people who received an email notification and volunteered to help. “Most of it is just customer service. That is what I think I am doing, providing customer service.”

Mayor Kintigh arrived at the airport to help and talk with passengers. Stark added that Church on the Move members also offered to respond, but the situation was in hand by the time they had called.

“The main thing is, these folks were inconvenienced by having to land here instead of going to their destination, so we will do the best we can to make them comfortable and hopefully this will be an introduction for some of them to Roswell so they can come back sometime when they don’t have to,” he said.

Some passengers said that they felt they had been treated well, given the circumstances.

“People here have been very helpful,” said a member of the Ruth family of Tulsa. “It is just an unfortunate situation.”

For airport operations, the situation provided an idea of what serving two commercial airline flights simultaneously would be like, said Stark and Bleth. City staff have had preliminary discussions about adding an additional commercial flight, perhaps to Denver, Houston, Las Vegas or some other city.

“This is what it looks like with 150 people in the airport at once,” said Bleth.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.