Stranded air passengers' plight spurs action from Washington

  • Article by: PAUL WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 12, 2009 - 11:06 AM

It's still not clear why 47 people were stranded overnight on a parked airplane. Lawmakers urge swift passage of a bill of rights.

The nation's top transportation official Tuesday demanded answers from Continental Airlines about why 47 passengers were trapped overnight on a grounded jet in Rochester this past weekend.

"Reasonable people are outraged at the idea of being stuck on a small plane for [six] hours," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wrote in his official blog.

The passengers' plight prompted other Washington officials to call for action as well.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., said that the passengers' "unacceptable" treatment warranted a "swift response" by the Federal Avaiation Administration. The Senate sponsors of a passengers' bill of rights said the incident underscored the need for Congress to pass the legislation quickly.

Continental Flight 2816 was redirected to the Rochester airport because of severe weather at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport late Friday. It arrived from Houston about midnight, and passengers weren't allowed off the 50-seat plane in Rochester until 6 a.m. Saturday. The flight didn't reach its Twin Cities destination until midmorning.

Passenger Link Christin described the experience as a "nightmare," saying that passengers weren't given any food during the wait and that the toilet and babies on board began to smell.

LaHood said in his blog that he has written to the airline "inquiring into the circumstances [of the] extended delay."

Continental spokeswoman Julie King said the airline is declining to comment about LaHood's blog entry, but added, "We are working ... to respond quickly to his inquiry." King added that Continental continues "to take full responsibility."

The airline said Monday that it will apologize to the passengers and is offering a full refund for that flight along with a certificate for future travel.

LaHood said his letter asks the airline to explain why the flight was diverted specifically to Rochester, which carrier (Continental or the plane's operator, ExpressJet) was responsible for the passengers' well-being, what contingency plans were available and whether they were initiated, and why the plane had to stay on the ground so long.

A request by the Star Tribune for a copy of the letter was rejected by department spokesman Bill Mosley, saying, "As this is an investigation letter, it is not made public during the [course] of the investigation." Mosley added that the department has done nothing more beyond LaHood's letter seeking answers.

Klobuchar also wrote Tuesday to the two air carriers, saying that "representatives of Continental and ExpressJet and airport management officials have provided conflicting accounts of where responsibility lies for not pursuing available, alternative options that could have prevented this unacceptable situation."

ExpressJet said that passengers couldn't disembark in Rochester because security screeners at the airport had left for the day. But the airport manager said passengers could have been admitted to a secure area of the building if the airline had asked to do so, and noted that a Delta flight that also was diverted to Rochester that night allowed its passengers to deplane at 3:30 a.m.

Klobuchar, a member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which has oversight for air travel, asked the two airlines to review what happened and provide passengers with "a complete and candid explanation ... for how events were allowed to transpire as they did."

She added: "While the reported events of Flight 2816 are disconcerting in their own right, further troubling is that they come after repeated commitments by the airline industry to take action to [prevent] such occurrences. Clearly, more needs to be done to establish clear processes for the proper treatment of passengers during extended flight delays."

Klobuchar also wrote to the FAA, saying: "I hope you will share my assessment that the conditions experienced by these passengers were unacceptable and warrant a swift response."

Last month, the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, which is part of a larger FAA bill, was unanimously approved by the Senate Commerce Committee. It mandates that airlines give grounded passengers the option to disembark after three hours.

"While I can't comment on the merits of the proposed rule yet," LaHood wrote, "we will use the information Continental provides to help us reach a decision about what direction to go in that rulemaking."

The two chief Senate sponsors of the bill said Tuesday in a joint statement that the incident in Rochester should spur Congress to approve the proposal.

"People should never be forced to spend the night on the tarmac, held captive on an airplane without food, water and sufficient restrooms," said Democrat Barbara Boxer of California.

Her cosponsor, Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine, said, "The inexcusable actions of Continental Airlines -- to force nearly 50 passengers to remain on the tarmac for six hours -- makes clear, once again, the airline industry's refusal to protect passenger rights."

Specifically, the bill requires that:

• Airlines provide passengers with food, potable water, comfortable cabin temperature and ventilation, and adequate restrooms during a delay.

• Airlines offer passengers the option of safely deplaning once they have sat on the ground for three hours after the plane door has closed.

• Airports and airlines develop contingency plans for delayed flights to be federally reviewed and approved.

• The U.S. Transportation Department create a consumer complaint hotline that passengers can call to alert the agency about delays.

The provision is opposed by the Air Transport Association, which represents most major air carriers. The association has said a hard and fast timeframe for returning to the gate could have unintended consequences for customers, including the likelihood of more cancellations and other inconveniences.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482

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