Travelers on United flight to Hong Kong delayed for 20-plus hours by unfortunate events

"Passengers have been generally respectful and calm given the circumstances, but everyone is frustrated and angry," one passenger said.
United Flight #179
United Flight 179 from Newark to Hong Kong was diverted to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Canada, because of a medical emergency.Steven Lau / via Twitter

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By Janelle Griffith

Passengers on a United Airlines international flight that departed New Jersey Saturday afternoon had spent more time on tarmac than they had in the air as of Sunday morning — and they still had not reached their destination of Hong Kong.

The series of unfortunate events unfolded like a traveler's nightmare.

United Airlines flight 179 left Newark Liberty International Airport at about 3 p.m. ET Saturday, bound for Hong Kong International Airport. Then a medical emergency onboard caused the plane to be diverted to Happy Valley-Goose Bay Airport, a Canadian Forces Base, in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, the airline said.

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"Medical personnel met the aircraft at the gate and the customer was transported to a local hospital," a United Airlines spokeswoman said in a statement.

But the delays did not end there.

"After medical professionals helped the passenger off, we were told we were just refueling and then we’d head back to Newark," passenger Steven Lau told NBC News. "But there was an issue with getting one of the emergency exit doors securely closed."

After several hours of trying to fix the door, at about 12 a.m. ET, passengers were told it was frozen shut.

"Prior to departure, the aircraft experienced a mechanical issue. The airport did not have customs officers overnight so we were not able to let customers depart the aircraft. An alternative aircraft is being flown in to transport customers back to Newark," United said in a statement Sunday morning. "We apologize to our customers and our crew is doing everything possible to assist them during the delay."

On Sunday, at about 5 a.m. ET, the airline said the rescue plane had not left. By that point, passengers had been on the tarmac for about 14 hours.

Passengers were able to move around the cabin freely, Lau said, adding that the flight crew had done what they could to make food and drinks available during the delay. After a couple of hours, passengers were allowed off the plane Sunday morning to stretch their legs in a small terminal at the airport.

"While it hasn’t been too terrible for me, there are several smaller children and older passengers who I imagine it’s been harder on," Lau told NBC News.

By about noon ET Sunday, an alternative aircraft had arrived at Happy Valley-Goose Bay Airport and passengers had begun deplaning.

"Passengers have been generally respectful and calm given the circumstances, but everyone is frustrated and angry," Lau said.

Emily Pandise contributed.