Hundreds forced to sleep on airport floor after 'disruptive passenger' plane diversion to Ireland
Almost 300 airline passengers were forced to sleep overnight on the floor at Belfast International Airport at the weekend after their flight was diverted.
The chaotic scenes, which occurred because it was claimed no hotel rooms were available, has been branded embarrassing and "not a good advert for Northern Ireland".
The incident, where passengers had to bed down for the night on cold, hard tiles outside WH Smith's newsagents, has raised questions over the number of hotel rooms here.
Drama unfolded in the skies over north west Scotland on Saturday afternoon as a United Airlines flight 971 on its way from Rome to Chicago diverted to Belfast International because of a disruptive passenger.
After dropping him off, the crew were unable to take off again in time because flying would have eaten into their designated rest period, so passengers were told they would not be leaving until yesterday.
The plane first touched down in Belfast at 6.59pm but it is understood it was later in the night when the decision was taken to ring hotels to see if there were any rooms for passengers.
Passengers say they were sitting on the plane until near midnight before being told it would not be taking off.
Councillor Adrian Watson said his wife's B&B had vacancies on Saturday night but he was not contacted.
He said: "With hundreds of people diverted and having to sleep on the floor I am sure they would have been glad of any accommodation, even the B&B option, which would have been cheaper for them."
He added: "There are seven hotels in the Antrim area and over 20 B&Bs. I'm amazed there was no bed space. There are no major events on. The Irish Game Fair is the following weekend.
"This is an embarrassment for Northern Ireland and it sends out totally the wrong signal. It is a bad advert for people coming to stay here."
A spokeswoman for the Dunadry Hotel, around five miles from the airport, said all their rooms were occupied on Saturday night and that they did receive a call from the airport asking if there was availability.
"We have been very busy for over a week," she said. "All the other hotels in the area are the same. We have tour groups arriving, groups of up to 40 people arriving on a bus. We have 80 rooms."
A Belfast International Airport spokesman said it was the responsibility of the carrier to arrange accommodation but he said the airport tried its best to help by bringing in extra staff. "We handed out bottled water, blankets and we opened two conference rooms to facilitate people who wanted to put their heads down.
"We issued new boarding passes to passengers with families with the co-operation of Borderforce to get them airside so they could access food and beverage outlets," he said.
"Passengers were very good-humoured and full of praise for the efforts of the airport staff. We were caught in the middle of this. We pulled out all the stops and brought in extra staff and worked closely with the airline itself. We did everything we could to soften the experience for them."
A United Airlines spokesman said: "United flight 971, from Rome to Chicago, diverted to Belfast because of a disruptive passenger. Law enforcement met the aircraft and the passenger was removed. The crew then reached its maximum duty time, leading to the cancellation of the flight.
"We understand the inconvenience this causes our customers and will refund their Rome to Chicago flight as well as offer the choice of a travel certificate or miles for our MileagePlus loyalty programme.
"Hotel space was not available, so we provided customers accommodations at the airport, including food, beverages and blankets."
A man aged 42 with dual US/Italian nationality is to appear in court in Coleraine this morning.
Charges include endangering the safety of an aircraft.