An unexpected mix of fog, fuel and federal policies yesterday turned a 10-hour, nonstop flight from Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Seattle into an exhausting gantlet that included an hours long stay in Moses Lake.

Share story


An unexpected mix of fog, fuel and federal policies yesterday turned a 10-hour, nonstop flight from Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Seattle into an exhausting gantlet that included an hours long stay in Moses Lake.


The flight finally arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport at 6:26 a.m. today, 18 hours after its scheduled 12:30 p.m. arrival yesterday, according to the Associated Press.


One passenger who was in the Northwest Airlines plane diverted to Grant County International Airport was like being stuck in a bad action movie.


“It’s like we’re hostages without being in any kind of hostage situation,” Misha Shmidt, a violinist with the Seattle Symphony, said last night from aboard Northwest Flight 33.


The airplane had to circle above Sea-Tac around noon because of heavy fog. Fuel was running low, so the pilot crossed back over the Cascades and landed the DC-10 at the airport in Moses Lake.


The 300-plus passengers were forced to wait in the aircraft. They eventually were allowed to disembark but couldn’t leave the terminal.


They initially were told they couldn’t get off the plane because the airport has neither the infrastructure nor personnel to conduct the kind of federal customs inspections required for international flights. Passengers also had to await the arrival of a new pilot and crew from Minnesota to take over for the original crew because the Federal Aviation Administration limits work time to 16 consecutive hours.


“It’s a completely absurd Catch-22 situation,” Shmidt said while still on the plane. “They can’t let us leave the plane because of customs… , and the crew can’t fly the plane because they’ve already flown for 16 hours.”


Shmidt, 40, was traveling with his wife and son after visiting family in St. Petersburg, Russia.


Flight 33 was about an hour late leaving Amsterdam because the plane needed to be de-iced, said passenger John Castle, a researcher at a Seattle pharmaceutical company. With the delay, the plane departed at 3:20 a.m. Pacific Standard Time and was supposed to land at 12:30 p.m. in Seattle. After circling Sea-Tac, it flew to Moses Lake, landing around 2 p.m., he said.


By 5 p.m., there was no more food on board, and the crew was rationing water. An hour later, one man had been taken off the plane by medics and a second passenger was being treated for an unknown medical emergency, Castle said.


The plane was refueled, and eventually more water was brought on board, but at 7 p.m., passengers still were waiting for food to be delivered.


“It’s stale, foul, and we’re all tired,” Castle said at the time.


Castle, 34, was returning home from Frankfurt, Germany, where he, his wife and two young daughters spent the holidays with relatives.


“It’s just horrible — with a 3-year-old and a 7-month-old, it’s just ludicrous,” Castle said. “We’ve run out of games to play, and we’ve run out of baby food. We prepared for a 10-hour flight, not thinking it would take 24 hours.”


Pizza and soft drinks arrived around 8:30 p.m. — after being passed through a scanning machine — and two hours later, everyone was allowed off the plane, Castle said later last night.


Passengers were told crew members on board had been awake for more than 24 hours and needed to be relieved of their responsibilities, Castle said from his cellphone in the Moses Lake terminal. Everyone on board was confined to a secure area of the airport.


Northwest Airlines spokeswoman Mary Stanick said last night that a replacement crew was en route from Minneapolis. She couldn’t say when the new crew would arrive.


But Castle said passengers were told the new crew had been delayed because their charter plane had a flat tire.


Mike Milne, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Seattle, said he empathizes with passengers, but stressed that security is the paramount concern. .


“It’s unfortunate, and it’s inconvenient, but we have to remind this country we’re at a yellow-alert level,” Milne said, referring to the federal color-coded alert system. “We’re required to check passengers against criminal watch lists and terrorist watch lists. … We need to do our jobs.”

Seattle Times reporter Dominic Gates contributed to this report.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com