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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Delta Flight Returns to U.S. After Russians Turn It Away

SAN FRANCISCO - A Delta flight from Atlanta to Japan was forced back to the United States after Russian air traffic controllers said it didn't have permission to fly through their airspace. The airline said it was an isolated mixup and the problem was corrected.

Flight 55, carrying 203 passengers and 15 crew members, was about 20 minutes into Russian airspace when the controllers notified pilots the flight lacked proper clearance, Delta Air Lines said.

Some 9 1/2 hours into the flight, the plane had to turn around and then fly 5 1/2 more hours to recross the Pacific and land in San Francisco early Thursday.

Delta spokeswoman Alesia Watson called the incident "a one-time error" that has been corrected. She said she did not know what had happened or how the problem was solved.

"Something happened that just normally doesn't happen," she said. "It was an odd set of circumstances and steps have been taken to make sure that it doesn't happen again." Delta has three other flights each day to Japan that traverse Russian airspace. None of those flights was affected, Watson said.

Passengers got a few hours of sleep at a hotel, then continued their trip to Japan later Thursday.

"I'm not afraid. I miss Mommy," said 7-year-old Ai Csuka, whose reunion with her mother was delayed by a day.

The little girl and her father, who teaches at a language school in Japan, boarded a United flight on Thursday morning for what they hoped was the final leg of their journey.

Robert Usov, a spokesman for the civil aviation sector of the Russian Air Traffic Control Center in Moscow, said earlier that Delta had failed to send a request in time for permission to fly through Russian airspace but that it was given special clearance by Moscow.

"The flight wasn't in our plan. However, we decided to let the plane [fly] through our airspace and gave corresponding orders to the Khabarovsk regional air traffic control center. I don't know what the problem was but, I repeat, we let the Delta flight in," Usov said. "Maybe there was some misunderstanding."

Top officials at the office in Khabarovsk, the control site for flights entering or leaving Russia over the Pacific route, weren't available for comment.

Thursday's flight took off as usual at about 10:30 a.m. EDT from Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport.

In addition to hotel rooms, passengers from Wednesday's aborted flight were given $6 meal vouchers before they were rebooked on other flights to Japan.

"Basically, I could have driven here a lot faster if I had a car," passenger Bill Reilly said as he left the plane in San Francisco.

Another passenger on board the Delta flight, Mark Matthews of Macon, Ga., said there was some concern about the safety of the re-routed flight, given the current standoff between the United States and China over the return of 24 military crew members detained since a mid-air collision.

"I didn't see any MiG 29s on our flanks, but I'm sure it did cross everybody's mind," Matthews said.

In 1983, Soviet fighter planes shot down a Korean Airlines passenger jet after it strayed into Soviet airspace. All 269 people aboard that flight died.