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United flight to Paris diverts to Newfoundland, passengers forced to sleep on benches and floor

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A United Airlines flight from Washington Dulles to Paris was diverted to Gander, N.L., early Monday due to a mechanical issue. But with no border agents available or willing to process them, more than 240 passengers were forced to spend the night on benches and the small airport's floor until another flight was able to depart 14 hours later.

"Gander International Airport is an official Canadian Airport of Entry with a 24-7 Canada Border Services Agency staff presence, including last night," Gander International Airport CEO Reg Wright told CTVNews.ca. "The airport authority doesn't control the border, so I can't speak to why the passengers were not processed."

In a statement to CTVNews.ca, a Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) spokesperson said agents were on duty, but only the flight's crew members were processed and permitted to leave the airport.

"The CBSA can confirm that while the request to clear passengers was made on site, it was not appropriately actioned," they said via email. "CBSA management is following up to ensure appropriate action is taken in a timely manner in the future. The CBSA extends its sincere apologies to the passengers for any inconveniences experienced."

'Sleeping on the cold tile floor'

Taylor Cady's children were sleeping when she heard the overhead announcement that their flight to Paris was being diverted. At the airport in Gander, she says they were provided bottles of water at around 2:30 a.m. local time, and breakfast from McDonald's and Tim Hortons arrived after 8 a.m.

"People were sleeping on the cold tile floor," Cady told CTVNews.ca from Gander.

Cady said passengers tried to make the most of things, and there was a pickup game of soccer in the terminal and an impromptu performance on an airport piano.

"We tried to sleep, but we were told we would get help from a United agent," Cady added. "No one came."

A screen shows the path a United Airlines flight took while travelling from Washington to Paris before being diverted to Gander, N.L., early Monday. (Courtesy of Taylor Cady)

United Airlines says 268 passengers and 12 crew members were aboard the Boeing 777-200.

Data from FlightAware.com shows the plane abruptly turning around while flying over the North Atlantic and then landing in Gander close to 1 a.m. local time, approximately five hours after takeoff.

Passengers waited in the terminal until another United plane was able to depart shortly before 3 p.m. The second flight finally landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport just before midnight in Paris.

"Passengers did have to overnight at the airport, as there were no Customs services available to clear passengers," a United Airlines spokesperson told CTVNews.ca. "United provided food and water to the passengers and WiFi is available complimentary in the Gander airport Terminals."

'Less-than-optimal circumstances'

Canada's Air Passenger Protection Regulations require airlines to provide food and drinks, access to communication like Wi-Fi, and accommodation for overnight delays caused by mechanical malfunctions.

"Should passengers believe that an airline has not satisfied its obligations under the Air Passenger Protection Regulations, they must first send their complaint to the airline in writing," a Canadian Transportation Agency spokesperson told CTVNews.ca. "If their complaint remains unresolved or unanswered after 30 days, they can submit it to the Agency using its online form."

According to Gander airport's CEO, airport restaurants would have been closed when the last passenger deplaned at 2 a.m. local time.

"Unscheduled airliners arriving after midnight on short notice can create service challenges, especially when they don't leave the airport terminal," Wright said via email. "United quickly deployed a relief aircraft, and airport personnel did their best to accommodate guests under less-than-optimal circumstances. Most importantly, the aircraft landed safely."

Gander and its airport were immortalized in the musical "Come from Away," which recounts how the town came together to help thousands of passengers stranded there after their flights were diverted following the September 11 terrorist attacks. 

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