SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – A flight just minutes away from landing in Santa Fe, coming from the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, turned around and went all the way back to DFW late Tuesday night.
Passengers were left stranded in DFW overnight, frustrated and seeking answers as to what happened.
Among those passengers was Leighann Gagnon, whose mother, Melicent D’Amore, was set to pick her up once her flight landed around 11 p.m. Gagnon is in town to visit her family.
When D’Amore left her Eldorado home for the airport, she says the weather was beautiful.
“It was perfectly calm. It was a crystal clear night. There was no breeze,” she said.
However, just minutes before landing, the flight made a sudden U-turn.
“The captain came on the loud speaker and said we were turning around,” Gagnon recalled.
D’Amore says she prodded airport staff for answers.
“They said there was no one in the control tower. And I said, ‘How can that be if you know there’s an incoming flight?'” D’Amore said.
Turns out, that’s true. There’s no one in the Santa Fe Municipal Airport air traffic control tower from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. Still, both the airport manager and the FAA say that’s common for small airports like Santa Fe, and that planes still land safely.
“Pilots communicate with one another on the airport’s dedicated radio frequency. All pilots learn how to do this as part of their initial flight training. The majority of smaller airports around the U.S. do not have towers,” Lynn Lunsford, FAA spokesman, said.
Meanwhile, mid-air, Gagnon heard from various employees “that there was nobody in the weather tower. That the weather machine was broken.”
Turns out the answer as to what happened was somewhere in between.
The airport manager tells KRQE News 13 the plane didn’t land in Santa Fe because the National Weather Service at the airport experienced technical problems and couldn’t relay wind speed to the pilot.
American Airlines says a wind speed reading is required by law to land.
However, had there been someone in the tower, the plane probably could have landed because they have access to a secondary weather system, according to the airport manager.
“It’s an airport. How can there be no one in the control tower?” D’Amore asked.
Santa Fe has a handful of post-9 p.m. regular arrivals, with a little under a dozen total commercial arrivals each day. At least two flights come in each weekday after 9 p.m.
“People were annoyed,” Gagnon said. “I mean, everybody knew it was the last flight and mostly, people were just really confused why they didn’t just send us to Albuquerque.”
American Airlines says its “ExpressJet” puddle jumper plane doesn’t operate out of the Sunport, so going back to DFW was the best option. The same plane finally left for Santa Fe Wednesday morning around 7 a.m., Gagnon said.
Adding insult to injury, Gagnon says once she and the other passengers got back to DFW at almost 1 a.m., the airport was a ghost town, and that American Airlines didn’t help any of the stranded customers. No hotel voucher, food coupon or even a cot or water.
The passengers couldn’t even get their checked bags because all airport personnel were gone.
American Airlines tells KRQE News 13 that because it was not at fault, policy doesn’t allow them to give out free hotel rooms or food.
Gagnon says a bottle of water or maybe a cup of coffee — anything — would have been nice, though.