Passenger: Shortness of breath on flight diverted to Buffalo

A passenger on a SkyWest flight to Connecticut that made an emergency landing in New York described a lack of air in the cabin and shortness of breath as three others on board lost consciousness, but the airline said an inspection on the ground found no mechanical faults.

The flight, carrying 75 passengers, departed O'Hare International Airport in Chicago and was bound for Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks. The plane began a steep, rapid descent from its cruising altitude of 37,000 feet after the crew declared an emergency and landed at Buffalo Niagara International Airport late Wednesday morning.

Federal transportation safety authorities said Thursday they are still assessing what happened on Flight 5622, an Embraer E170 jet operating as United Express.

Passenger Larry Johnson, of Danbury, Connecticut, told The Associated Press it became difficult to breathe partway through the flight, though oxygen masks never dropped.

“They told us there was a leak in something and the pressurization was cutting short,” he said. “They said if you got lightheaded, that was normal, but that we were going to have to descend and make an emergency landing.”

He said several passengers were given oxygen.

“None of the air vents were working and it was hard to breathe. You just felt that your chest was caving in and then the plane descended so rapidly and that didn't help,” Johnson said. “Me and my girlfriend, we were looking at each other. We were like, 'We don't feel good.' Everything was so bright, and when you blinked, you would see dots.”

SkyWest Inc. spokeswoman Marissa Snow said Thursday that inspections of the aircraft's systems by the airline's mechanics and local authorities “shows absolutely nothing wrong with the aircraft.”

She said she had no confirmation that air wasn't coming from the vents in the cabin or that the air handling system in the cabin was faulty.

The plane remained at the Buffalo airport Thursday, Snow said.

“We're trying to understand the circumstances before we decide on what, if any action, we would take,” said Eric Weiss, a National Transportation Safety Board spokesman, said Thursday. The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating but said it had no new information.

Mary Cunningham, a nurse at Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut, was on the flight. She told WTNH-TV she helped provide medical care after the first woman passed out.

“We got her oxygen, and as soon as she got on the oxygen she was alert, she came right back,” Cunningham said. “Then I went back to my seat after she was feeling better, and they called me right back because the person sitting right behind her passed out.”

Johnson said: “Everyone in the middle of the cabin basically felt like they couldn't breathe and that's when they knew something was wrong.”

For nearly eight minutes, the plane descended at a steep incline, dropping as fast as 7,000 feet per minute, flight tracking service FlightAware said.

In addition to the three passengers who lost consciousness, 15 adults and two children were evaluated after landing. None required further treatment, airport spokesman C. Douglas Hartmayer said.

Marc Moller, an aviation lawyer in New York, said passenger accounts suggest a problem with the aircraft. The rapid descent also could have caused panic and discomfort, even if cabin pressure were normal, he said.

“You expect to go from Point A to Point B without having trouble breathing,” Moller said. “If you have trouble breathing as these passengers describe, something went wrong and the airline is responsible.”

Initial reports the cabin depressurized turned out to be wrong, authorities said. But it is standard procedure for pilots to begin a rapid descent to 10,000 feet if they believe an aircraft has a pressurization problem.

John Cox, a former airline pilot and now an aviation safety consultant, said the plane's rate of descent wouldn't be considered extreme.

“It's a maneuver the pilots train for,” he said. A passenger jet “will come down 8,000-plus feet a minute at high altitude. It's smooth. There's a bit of a pitch down — it's like going down a hill.”

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