Thursday, April 12, 2012

Korean Air plane diverted to Comox resumes journey to South Korea

Passengers on a Korean Air flight diverted to Comox because of a bomb threat resumed their journey to Seoul, South Korea on Wednesday night.

The plane left Vancouver Tuesday afternoon for Seoul, but changed course and landed in Comox because of the threat. Passengers stayed in area hotels overnight and then travelled back to Vancouver on Wednesday for the plane to refuel. Flight 72 took off again from Vancouver for Seoul on Wednesday night at about 8:30 p.m.

There were 134 passengers aboard the Boeing 777 when it was intercepted over Haida Gwaii en route to Seoul. The aircraft was escorted to Comox Valley Airport by two U.S. air force F-15 fighter jets from Portland, Oregon, following a bomb threat received at Korean Airlines' U.S. call centre 25 minutes after the flight took off.

Canadian fighter jets are not stationed at CFB Comox, which is home to the Buffalo transport plane and Cormorant and Aurora helicopters.

RCMP Sgt. Rob Vermeulen said officers interviewed the Korean Air passengers as part of their investigation before the flight left.

Passengers said Wednesday they were kept in the dark about the threat, even as they were frisked on the tarmac. The Korean Air captain said only that the flight had turned around because of a security issue.

Passenger Lyle Letawsky said he wasn't happy passengers had to wait beside the plane on the tarmac in Comox for a bus to arrive. "Being that it's a bomb threat, wouldn't you want to get everybody away from the plane? That was probably the most disturbing part of it for me," said Letawsky, who was on his way to meet his new Filipina wife for a honeymoon.

Military officials from CFB Comox fed the passengers before they were transported in buses to hotels in Courtenay.

"They got people fed [Tuesday] night and got them into commercial accommodations, although they were prepared to put them up in the [base] gym on the floor on air mattresses and cots," said Comox Mayor Paul Ives. "Once the hotels opened up some rooms, they got them there."

The Best Western Westerly Hotel and the Holiday Inn took in most of the stranded passengers.

Korean Air spokeswoman Penny Pfaelzer said the attention given to passengers and crew in Comox was outstanding.

"Canadians are known for their hospitality," she said from Arizona. "I think you guys rock."

Checked baggage and cargo items were inspected Wednesday, along with the plane, Pfaelzer said.

The RCMP deployed an explosives disposal unit to the base as well as forensic identification services and police dog services, with help from the Canadian Forces.

Ives said the Comox airport, with its 10,000-foot-long runway, was in a unique position to handle the large plane,

Planes as big as a Boeing 777 are rare for the Comox airport, although it sees 737s on a regular basis.

"Occasionally we get charter flights in and we do fly out to Mexico," Ives said.

The Comox Valley Airport Commission runs the civilian terminal, including baggage and passenger screening, while the Department of National Defence is responsible for the airfield.

Tuesday's threat came after a similar threat Monday to a Vancouver-Seoul flight while it was still on the ground. That flight left for Korea two hours behind schedule.

Tensions are high on the Korean peninsula, where North Korea is preparing to launch a long-range rocket as South Koreans go to the polls.

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