A group of Tennesseans bound for a pilgrimage to Israel say two Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) officers were the only ones there to help them when their airline left them stranded at Philadelphia International Airport for nearly 12 hours this weekend.
Rev. Thad Austin, 28, said he and 31 congregants were supposed to board US Airways flight 796 to Tel Aviv, Israel at around 8 p.m. on Sunday. But, according to Austin, there were problems with the flight from the time the group arrived at the airport early that afternoon.
Austin said the airline initially informed the group about a weather delay, which pushed the boarding time for their flight from 8:20 p.m. to roughly 11 p.m. Once aboard the flight, Austin said he and the other passengers sat on the plane awaiting takeoff for nearly five hours only to be told that the flight would be canceled.
The passengers were instructed to exit the plane at around 3 a.m. Monday. It was then that Austin says two PPD officers approached the group and offered to help them.
"A couple of police officers with Philly police scoured the entire airport for any food that they could find. The gave out blankets, food, and water to folks. It was great," Austin said.
"One officer even took me on her cart to get rebooked. I probably never would've found it and I would've had to walk a mile or so to get there. They were so helpful. They were just incredible. They really went above and beyond."
Philadelphia International Airport spokesman Victoria Lupica said PPD officers are an integral part of the airport's hospitality program, which provides basic necessities to passengers who find themselves stranded there overnight.
"We have a hospitality program and our folks distribute pillows, blankets, water, and snacks; we go and search for people who are stranded and try to help everyone," Lupica said. "We’re so grateful to have the police's help with the program. They really are great with helping us."
According to Lupica, Austin's group were among 305 people that the hospitality program assisted Sunday night when numerous flights were canceled or delayed due to snow.
While Austin applauded the PPD officers and airport workers for their help, he felt that US Airways workers could have done much more.
"They could've been a lot more helpful. They just gave us an 800 number and told us we were on our own. So, we were just stranded there in the middle of the airport," he said.
"Maybe releasing people into a closed airport at 3 a.m. with no food or anything is not such a good idea. I think that at very minimum they should have offered some type of meal vouchers. We were supposed to have dinner on the flight. They offered pretzels and water; that was the only thing they gave us for the 4 to 5 hours we were on the plane. Can't paying customers have at least a little bit of consideration?"
Austin said US Airways representatives told them that the five hour delay was due to mechanical issues. Apparently, by the time the mechanical problems were corrected, the flight crew had reached their FAA duty time limits, and the airline was forced to cancel the flight.
US Airways spokesman Bill McGlashen told NBC10.com 230 commuter and mainline flights had to be canceled because of the weather.
"We apologize for the delay and any inconvenience it caused. It was just a very difficult night in Philadelphia with the weather event," he said.
McGlashen added that the plane was forced to return to the gate to let off an ill passenger and that the subsequent delays led to the crew surpassing the amount of time they're legally allowed to fly the aircraft without a break.
Austin said the flight cancellation has already cost the group hundreds of dollars in hotel and cab fare fees, and will jeopardize two or more days of the 11 day pilgrimage, which was planned nearly one year ago.
Members of Austin's group were booked on alternate flights by 8:30 a.m. Monday, but they will no longer be departing and arriving together. Austin says he's just looking forward to seeing his group reunited tomorrow.
"US Airways was finally able to get us rebooked but some of us are flying through London, some through Germany, all at different times," he said. "Hopefully, by tomorrow night we'll all be back together in Jerusalem."