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Bangor Is Used to Surprise Landings

Airport Is Also a Key Stop for Troops

By Sara Kehaulani Goo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 17, 2004; Page A03

BANGOR, Maine -- Yusuf Islam, the pop star formerly known as Cat Stevens, was a "perfect gentleman" when he got dumped at Bangor International Airport last month -- unlike most of the passengers who get pitched off their flights here, the local police said.

"He was very polite," said Don Winslow, chief of the Bangor Police Department.

Marines coming home from Iraq leave notes on a board at Bangor's airport honoring those killed in the war. (Bob Delong For The Washington Post)

Winslow could not say the same about 20 drunken British men who were swept off an American Airlines flight earlier this year. The London-to-Chicago flight was diverted here when the men started celebrating a bachelor party over the Atlantic. Some of the party hounds threw a fit on the ground and refused to get off the plane. When no other airline would sell the group tickets, the men sobered up, rented eight sport-utility vehicles and drove to Boston hoping to find another flight.

This city of 32,000 is used to diverted flights. Nestled in the northeastern corner of the country, Bangor International has made a cottage industry of taking in flights that run into the trouble over the Atlantic. It has a runway more than two miles long, a U.S. attorney's office and FBI agents who live within minutes of the terminal. For airline pilots, the combination makes Bangor a favorite unscheduled landing spot.

The incidents are so common that local nurses say they often treat patients from the diverted flights: an assaulted flight attendant, a heart attack victim, a woman in labor.

"It's not a major thing" to get a patient from a diverted flight, said Karla Adams, a local nurse at St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor.

Bangor International also plays a small supporting role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as flights ferrying troops to and from the Middle East often stop here to refuel and allow service members to make a quick call home. Many remember their touchdown here fondly because it is the last or first chance they have to step on U.S. soil.

It also makes a great photo op for a politician hoping to capture Maine, a swing state whose voters are known to be independent thinkers. President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards have visited the Bangor airport in recent months.

"Things like that place us on the unique list of airports in the country," said William "Bill" Knight, who organizes a group of veterans and volunteers who meet the service members upon arrival in Bangor and who recently had his photo taken with the president.

The airport's small, two-level rectangular terminal, decorated with 1970s-style airport chairs, has seen better days. Transatlantic flights used to stop here to refuel and process hundreds of passengers through Customs and Immigration as recently as the late 1990s. But that ended when carriers purchased more modern aircraft that could fly longer distances, thus eliminating the need to stop in Bangor.

Long before the terrorist attacks, Bangor became the favorite spot for airlines to dump and run: drop unruly passengers and get back in the air. The airport took in as many as 10 diverted flights one year during the peak of the "air rage" incidents in the 1990s.

Not all abandoned travelers are kicked off planes, however. Erwin Kreuz, a German tourist, became the first passenger left behind at Bangor when he stuck around after his charter flight stopped for refueling in 1977. Kreuz thought he had reached his destination -- San Francisco. Three days later, he realized his mistake. When the governor came to his assistance, Kreuz's ordeal was featured on the "Today" show. He was given a key to the city, and one Maine family gave him an acre of land. He was also named an honorary member of the Native American Penobscot tribe before he returned to Germany.

Today, a handful of major airlines offer two daily flights to cities such as Cleveland, Philadelphia and Boston on small jet planes, an upgrade from the turboprops that served Bangor a few years ago. Every month, the Bangor airport also attracts a few dozen VIP jets carrying wealthy part-time Maine island residents such as actor John Travolta (who flies his own plane) and corporate executives and royals who find Bangor a convenient refueling stop en route to Europe.

The airport lounge sells some of the best lobster rolls in Bangor and discounted Budweisers to service members. There is also a coffee shop and a gift store selling lobster and moose T-shirts. Outside, a fence surrounds the runway to keep moose and wild turkey from wandering onto the tarmac.

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