Flight canceled mid-air, heads back to Charlotte

Aerial view of the runways at Charleston International

A strange thing happened to a plane en route from Charlotte to Charleston on Wednesday night.

Already beginning his final descent into the Lowcountry, the pilot on U.S. Airways Flight 3203 announced that he was turning around and heading back to Charlotte. Charleston International Airport, he told passengers as the clock ticked past midnight, had closed.

Passenger Jenny Spain, returning from two weeks in Costa Rica with her husband, put it this way: "I've never heard of a flight being canceled mid-air."

The couple never learned why.

The airport did close at midnight, as it has every day since June 9 and will through Aug. 9, while work crews from the adjoining Charleston Air Force Base rebuild one of the two runways. The $30 million project runs from April through November and requires two months without air traffic between midnight and 6 a.m.

Trisha Gallaway, public affairs officer for the base, said the 7,000-foot runway last received major work more than 40 years ago and had deteriorated to an extent that damage had become a safety concern. Officials must close the airport as they work on the intersection of the runways.

The airport usually remains open 24 hours a day, and every airline knew in advance of the early-morning closures this summer, Charleston County Aviation Authority spokeswoman Becky Beaman said.

"It's rare something like this would happen," she said.

Flight 3203's inconvenient evening began with inclement weather in Charlotte, according to Carlo Bertolini, spokesman for Republic Airways, the carrier that operated the flight for U.S. Airways.

Bertolini said lightning struck near Charlotte Douglas International Airport and delayed takeoff after the plane left the gate at around 10:30 p.m. The flight, which was scheduled to arrive in Charleston at 11:25 p.m., departed Charlotte at 11:43 p.m., he said.

"We thought we were going to be able to make it in time," Bertolini said. "In addition, we thought the tower might remain open a little later."

Instead, only 50 miles outside of Charleston the pilot learned he would have to take the 66 passengers and four crew members back to Charlotte. The plane landed in Charlotte at 12:40 a.m., Bertolini said.

"The dispatcher and pilot were in communication through the flight plan," he said. "It showed we would be able to make it in time. It's not in our interest to do this, either, because it's extra fuel. It wasn't a consideration we took lightly."

Back on the ground, Spain said passengers received vouchers for a hotel discount and new tickets to fly out Thursday. She overheard a teenage boy call his father and ask what to do while other passengers groused about the hold-up.

"It was kind of funny," she said. "When we landed and they said, 'You can use your cell phone now,' there were a lot of cranky people on cell phones."