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United Nixes Passenger List Request

December 31, 1997

TOKYO (AP) _ United Airlines is refusing to turn over to Japanese investigators a list of passengers who were aboard an airliner pummeled by heavy turbulence over the weekend.

Interviews with passengers are critical to the investigation of the incident, which killed one person and injured more than 100 aboard Honolulu-bound Flight 826.

Passengers say the plane’s seat-belt sign was not lighted at the time the turbulence struck; the airlines says it was on.

Makoto Kitazawa, a member of a Transport Ministry committee investigating the accident, said today that a complaint had been filed with the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to press United Airlines to release the list.

United spokesman Hideki Isayama said the airline was simply following company policy. ``We respect the privacy of our customers,″ Isayama said.

Kitazawa, the investigator, said it was ``unthinkable″ that a carrier would refuse to release the list to government investigators.

Ted Lopatkiewicz of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said U.S. law requires airlines to keep a passenger list and then release it to the board upon request.

Tokyo’s request for the passenger list was made to the Tokyo office of United Airlines, and the airline’s Chicago headquarters has not been directly contacted, Kitazawa said.

Most of the 374 passengers on the United jet that flew into rough air late Sunday were Japanese hoping to spend the New Year’s holiday in Hawaii. The plane was forced to turn back to Narita airport near Tokyo on Monday.

Of the six passengers interviewed by Japanese investigators so far, none said the seat-belt sign was on, Kitazawa said. The six were all injured Japanese hospitalized in Japan.

The committee has been unable to interview uninjured passengers because of restricted access to the list, he said.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which asked for Japanese help in the investigation Tuesday, has said it could not be sure whether the seat-belt sign was on until investigators talked with the crew.

In Washington, the board said information from the black box showed the plane was severely buffeted by turbulence, but actually dropped much less than originally thought _ 100 feet, rather than the initial estimate of 1,000 feet.

According to federal investigators, about 1 hour and 31 minutes into the flight, while cruising at 31,000 feet altitude, the plane was struck with an upward force of 1.8 times the force of gravity and a sideways push of about one-tenth the force of gravity.

Six seconds later, the plane dropped with a downward force about 80 percent of gravity, with the passengers feeling nearly weightless for about half a second.

United Airlines has said the seat-belt sign was turned on after the plane hit slight turbulence and announcements were made in English and Japanese alerting passengers to buckle up, then the severe shaking started.

But many passengers said the sign was off and people were wandering around the aisles, when the jet suddenly seemed to give way beneath them, hurling them into the ceiling and overhead luggage compartments.

A 32-year-old woman died of a head injury. Twelve people remained hospitalized today, United spokesman Takaki Nakajima said.

Meanwhile, the plane left Tokyo today for Las Vegas, where federal investigators were to inspect it, Japan’s Transport Ministry said.

The plane’s interior has been left as it was, but the Federal Aviation Administration found the jetliner airworthy for the flight, said Chikayoshi Hirasawa, head of the ministry’s office at Tokyo’s international airport.

Hirasawa declined to comment on a report by the Japanese news agency Kyodo that the plane was 25 years old and would be scrapped.

United officials in Tokyo were not immediately available to comment.

Update hourly