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United passengers en route to Denver wait hours on tarmac after weather diversion

United Airlines flights diverted because of weather
Posted at 5:54 PM, Jul 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-11 20:09:38-04

DENVER — Some passengers en route to Denver International Airport Sunday afternoon had to wait hours on a tarmac in Cheyenne, Wyoming, after being diverted because of weather.

"We were literally trapped," passenger Mara Holiday said Monday.

She and her two daughters are happy to be back home in Centennial after a nightmare of a flight following a trip to Walt Disney World. Their United Airlines flight back home was going well until they approached Denver. That’s when the pilot came on and said they had to land in Cheyenne because the FAA had issued a ground stop due to “unfavorable winds” in the area.

"At that point, no one had any alarm. You know, we're happy to be traveling safely at that point," Holiday said.

Dave Cunningham, director of operations at Denver’s airport, says planes diverting for weather is more common than people may think.

"Any time there's thunderstorm activity over or in the vicinity of the airport, we have the possibility of this happening," he said.

But what passengers like Holiday thought would be a quick stop turned into hours of desperation. For about seven hours, she says she and her fellow passengers sat inside a hot plane on Cheyenne Regional Airport’s tarmac with no food or water, no answers and no way to deplane.

"One person starts having a diabetic emergency. A baby doesn't have diapers," Holiday said. "A person starts having a panic attack. They start punching and hitting the wall of the plane, screaming."

Holiday says, according to the pilot, the runway in Cheyenne was under construction and was too short to take off from safely with all the passengers and luggage on board. They had to wait for a rescue plane to come from Denver to pick up some of the passengers to reduce the weight.

"I stayed on the plane. Twenty people got off, and all of the luggage [was removed and those passengers were moved] onto the other rescue flight," Holiday said.

Online flight records show her flight landed at DIA about 2 a.m. Monday. Now, she wants United to take responsibility, as she feels her rights as a passenger, under U.S. Department of Transportation rules, were violated. Those rules "prohibit most U.S. airlines from allowing a domestic flight to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours," barring a few exceptions, according to the DOT.

"This was such a breakdown on so many levels on the part of United in that they didn't have any idea what to do," she said.

United Airlines sent Denver7 the following statement about Sunday's events, but a spokesperson did not respond to follow-up questions:

On Sunday, July 10 Denver International Airport experienced challenging weather conditions leading to numerous diversions by multiple airlines. United experienced 29 diversions primarily to Cheyenne Regional Airport, Pueblo Memorial Airport and Grand Junction Regional Airport.  We are making arrangements to get customers to their final destination as soon as possible via other routes. 

Other airlines, including Southwest, also experienced weather diversions.