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Airline takes 83-year-old to Puerto Rico instead of Tampa

TAMPA — Vera Kuemmel paced Tampa International Airport late Monday, waiting for her 83-year-old mother's return from New York.

The plane had been on the ground for hours. Where was her mother? Not in baggage claim, where the two had agreed to meet.

It was after midnight when Kuemmel's cell phone rang, her mother's frightened voice barely audible on the other end.

Mom, indeed, was at baggage claim.

In San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Elfriede Kuemmel had been flown to San Juan instead of back home.

It seems the two flights shared one gate, and Elfriede got in the wrong line at the wrong time, her daughter speculates.

Vera had requested that her mother be given a wheelchair and helped to her plane. But boarding pass and all, attendants let her on the wrong flight.

"As much as they make you go through, I just don't understand it," Vera said. "Not that she needed to be hand-held, but you'd think someone would take her under their wing. It's just unbelievable."

Elfriede left Tampa for New York before dawn on Monday. The Tampa resident plans to move back to her native state and was interviewing for a possible apartment rental. She was scheduled to return to Tampa the same day. She didn't pack a change of clothes.

Things went wrong in Philadelphia, where Elfriede was supposed to switch planes.

And switch planes she did.

U.S. Airways spokeswoman Valerie Wunder confirmed the mistake. Wunder said she wasn't sure how Elfriede's boarding pass didn't raise a red flag.

"We are looking into what we could've done on our end to prevent that," Wunder said.

Pete Burgess, owner of Burgess Aviation Consultants and an expert in air traffic services, said attendants sometimes look at a list of scanned boarding passes before departing. But it's usually because potential passengers are on standby.

If no one was waiting for a seat, it's conceivable that the woman could have slipped on without notice. But that's no excuse, Burgess said.

"I bet they're embarrassed" Burgess said.

Airport officials in San Juan set Elfriede up with a hotel room and food while she waited for a 3:30 p.m. first-class flight home on Tuesday. It was the earliest U.S. Airways return available.

She was scheduled to make a connection in Charlotte, N.C., and arrive in Tampa at 9:30 p.m.

As a swarm of news media gathered and waited for Elfriede's belated arrival at TIA, skycap Simon C. Cordero told a reporter that a second passenger had been lost the same day.

Another woman, who had been flying to Brazil, accidentally ended up in Tampa. He said he served as her translator, but couldn't remember her airline.

"It doesn't usually happen,'' he said. "Twice is unreal.''

At last the plane touched down, and Elfriede emerged, escorted in a wheelchair by a skycap and looking weary.

She left the airport tram with her face covered with a black handkerchief, and didn't answer any questions until she had been reunited with her family and was about to depart at the curb outside the baggage area, where she paused.

The worst part about the trip was "just being lost,'' she said.

Asked how she liked Puerto Rico, she said, "I didn't see it. I was in the airport the whole time,'' although she did get to spend the night in a nearby hotel room courtesy of the airline.

She said she loved flying first class after the tiresome, unexpected diversion. She has never been to Puerto Rico before, she said, "and I'll never go again.''

Then she got into the family's car, and away they went.

Robbyn Mitchell contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

Airline takes 83-year-old to Puerto Rico instead of Tampa 11/18/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 25, 2008 6:47am]
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