CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- US Airways CEO Doug Parker apologized Monday to the Charlotte Chamber’s chairman after a Saturday flight to London carrying the Chamber’s annual inter-city delegation was canceled.
A statement late Monday from US Airways and the Chamber said Parker and Chamber chairman Frank Emory are working to resolve any lingering issues for passengers resulting from the cancellation. The airline has said it had no choice but to cancel Flight 732 to London’s Gatwick Airport, after repair attempts failed to correct a safety indication light.
“Together, we’re working to resolve all outstanding issues as quickly as we can,” said the statement. “It will take time to do so.”
US Airways spokeswoman Michelle Mohr told the Observer it was “incredibly unfortunate” the flight ended up being grounded. She said the airline offered to re-accommodate all of the passengers, including the Chamber’s 64-person delegation of business executives and government officials.
The Chamber ended up canceling the whole trip.
One trip participant said she was unhappy with US Airways after a seven-hour-long wait to see if the flight would be canceled or not, which kept the 270 passengers at the Charlotte Douglas
International Airport gate. “Complete ineptness,” Lynn Wheeler, former Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem and owner of a communications firm, said of US Airways’ response.
The cost to taxpayers for the city officials’ portion of the trip was $48,000, for a delegation of seven council members and three city staffers. Two Mecklenburg County commissioners and a county staffer were also set to go on the flight, as were the incoming director of the county library system and a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member.
The total cost to taxpayers could not be immediately confirmed Monday with Mecklenburg County or CMS. Earlier, the Chamber had said the cost per person was $5,000, with a $200 discount for public officials.
US Airways will refund the participants’ fares, Mohr said. The Chamber said taxpayers will receive all of their money back for the cost of the whole trip.
Mohr said it is “very rare” to cancel a trans-Atlantic flight. International routes tend to be an airline’s most lucrative, and the Airbus A330 scheduled for the Charlotte-London route is among the largest planes US Airways flies.
The trouble began shortly after the plane pushed off from the gate, at around 6:20. While taxiing, the pilot noticed a warning light. Passengers said the pilot told them over the intercom it was a warning for the fuel gauge.
The plane returned to the gate after about 40 minutes. Passengers got off the plane, and waited for more than three hours while mechanics worked. Mohr said the passengers were offered juice and snacks in the waiting area. Passengers boarded again, and the plane pushed off a second time at 10:23.
But the problem persisted, the plane returned to the gate again, and the flight was finally canceled at about 1:30 a.m.
Wheeler said she was frustrated by the lack of direction from US Airways. She said the airline at times said it would fly them to Philadelphia to get another plane to London there, then said that another plane was flying to Charlotte to get them.
“Making the passengers board and get off two different times, taking seven hours to make a decision about a resolution of the problem and keeping 270 men, women and small children in limbo was complete ineptness,” she said.
Charlotte City Council member Michael Barnes said it made sense to call off the five-day trip once the flight was canceled.
“It would have been a poor use of time if you could only do business for two days,” Barnes said.
In addition to the city and county officials, many city business leaders such as Charlotte Bobcats President Fred Whitfield and Tom Nelson, CEO of National Gypsum, were scheduled to go on the trip.
The Chamber has been conducting annual inter-city visits for decades. This year, officials said they were interested in learning more about London’s bid for the Summer Olympics to see if Charlotte should bid for the games one day. They also wanted to learn more about how London, also a financial center, made it through the recession.
In addition to the 64 trip participants on the plane, about 20 traveled separately and ended up in London. Queens University President Pamela Davies, the trip’s chairwoman, was in Ireland with students who were studying abroad and had planned to meet the Chamber group. Nelson, of
National Gypsum, was the trip’s vice-chairman. He had traveled independently to London and planned to return Wednesday, his office said.
Natalie English, the Chamber’s chief lobbyist, had gone to London in advance of the group.
Monday, she tweeted that only one presenting sponsor, John Woodcock of Balfour Beatty, had made it to London. The smaller group was still headed to Parliament for lunch and a tour, English said.