Metro articles on Aug. 1 and 2 incorrectly said that Ghana Airways is the only airline that offers direct flights between the United States and West Africa. South African Airways and Royal Air Maroc, for example, also fly directly. (Published 8/5/04)
U.S. and Ghanaian officials negotiated yesterday over the federal government's decision to block flights of Ghana's state-run airline -- a key link between West Africa and the United States -- but none of that urgency was palpable at the Ramada Inn in Laurel, where Salifu Mboge had just been shut out of a lunch buffet.
Mboge was one of about 40 Ghana Airways passengers marooned at the motel since U.S. transportation officials took the unusual step Tuesday of suspending the airline's right to fly in and out of the United States and impounded its DC-10 at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, citing questions about safety and permits.
Since his flight was canceled early last week, the brewery engineer said, gifts he bought while visiting his sister in North Carolina were stolen out of his luggage at BWI, Ghana Airways officials failed to show up for meetings about getting people home, and he has had to eat every meal at the motel's buffet, since that's what the airline paid for.
Except yesterday's lunch. He was late and was told he would not be fed.
"I should have been at work on Tuesday," said Mboge, 45, from Kololi, Gambia. "And communication [with the airline] is terrible. They said they'd come back last night, but they didn't. Now we hear from the hotel manager there will probably be a flight Tuesday, but we don't know what airline. Even if you have money, flights [on other airlines] are full."
Hundreds of passengers of Ghana Airways were stranded across the region and in the Ghanaian capital of Accra, where a U.S. Embassy official declined to give much detail about negotiations.
"It's a sensitive issue and is being followed from the president's office because negotiations are taking place," said Kevin Doyle, the duty officer at the embassy. Doyle said he didn't know how many people were stuck in Accra.
Although several airlines operate flights between Accra and Europe, Ghana Airways flies the only direct route between West Africa and the United States. The airline has four scheduled flights a week to the United States, landing at BWI and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
Robert Johnson, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation, said his agency was "working hard to put diplomatic pressure on the airline and the government" to help stranded passengers.
No one answered the phone at a half-dozen phone numbers Ghana Airways listed on its Web site for people calling about the suspension. The site said the company was working "to resolve all allegations and resume normal operations as soon as possible." No one answered at Ghana's government offices, which were closed for the weekend, and the Ghanaian Embassy in Washington was closed.
Johnson described the investigation into Ghana Airways as "a web" and said no one at the agency could remember a time when an airline was completely halted from flying.
The situation developed last weekend, when U.S. inspectors spotted corrosion on the DC-10 the airline uses to fly into and out of the United States, said Brian Turmail, another Transportation Department spokesman. The aircraft had been ordered grounded, but the airline made two trans-Atlantic round-trip flights with it anyway, Johnson said.
Officials then discovered the airline had let its permit expire in mid-July but was still flying. Johnson said the Transportation Department was also bothered that the airline doesn't belong -- as most airlines do -- to an industry association that lets other airlines pick up its passengers if something happens to its planes.
"We have some significant concerns about this airline," he said.
Although Doyle said U.S. transportation officials had been in Accra to negotiate with the airline and government, Johnson said Ghana Airways wasn't returning the Transportation Department's phone calls yesterday.
After hearing from passengers that the airline was saying it was close to restarting flights, the Transportation Department on Friday ordered Ghana Airways to stop selling tickets.
Transportation Department officials would not confirm whether further inspections had been done after inspectors reported the corrosion on the plane. "I know we are investigating the safety record of that aircraft and whether it has been the subject of necessary safety inspections, but that's all I can say because we're not done," Johnson said.
All of this translated into loss for people at the Ramada: thousands of lost dollars, lost vacation time, lost belongings ruined when they were put on the tarmac at BWI in a rainstorm and, for two dozen African Americans on a heritage pilgrimage, lost dreams. About 20 people left yesterday morning for flights home via Ethiopia, but more than two dozen were still there.
Benjamin Nutsutse was in tears Friday over what he felt certain he would lose: the chance to be at his father's funeral. The 37-year-old graduate student had driven 15 hours from Jefferson City, Mo., where he lives with his wife and two children, to Baltimore last Sunday for a flight to his native Ghana.
Like other Ghanaian immigrants at the Ramada, Nutsutse said he hadn't been home for years because it was too expensive. But when his father died a few weeks ago, he said, he paid $1,631.50 for a plane ticket to be at the funeral, which was yesterday.
"I can't believe I have to miss it," he said, his voice barely above a whisper. "I don't even know my fate now or what I'm going to do."
A Ramada operator who wouldn't give his name said yesterday evening that Nutsutse was no longer at the hotel but that he didn't know when he had left.