When Link Christin boarded a Continental Airlines flight from Houston to the Twin Cities on Friday night, he expected to be on the ground in about three hours and ready for a comfy bed.

Instead, he was among 47 passengers who spent the night trapped inside a small airplane, parked at the Rochester airport, complete with crying babies and the aroma of over-used toilets.

The ExpressJet Airlines that operated the plane says the flight was diverted to Rochester because of Twin Cities thunderstorms, and that airline regulations prevented passengers from getting off the plane.

Christin is incredulous that the airline couldn't figure out an option besides trapping passengers on the plane for nine hours.

"It's not like you're on a [Boeing] 747 and you can walk around," said Christin, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law. "This was a sardine can, with a single row of seats on one side of the plane and two rows of seats on the other. And they've got about 50 people inside, including babies, for the whole night. It was a nightmare."

Continental Airlines, which issued the tickets for Flight 2816, referred inquiries to ExpressJet Airlines. ExpressJet spokesperson Kristy Nicholas said the flight ran into several problems.

The airline crew on the plane reached their maximum work hours in the air, so another crew had to be flown in. The alternative of chartering a bus didn't work out. And letting the passengers into the Rochester airport was not possible because they would have to go through security screening again, and the screeners had gone home for the day.

What about just letting the passengers sleep in the airport terminal? "That was not provided as an option by ground services personnel at the airport," said Nicholas.

The flight left Houston about 9:30 p.m. Friday, said Nicholas, and was slated to arrive in the Twin Cities by midnight. But in Minnesota, passengers were told the flight was being diverted to Rochester because of thunderstorms and that it would refuel there, said Christin.

With the plane grounded in Rochester, the clock ticked from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. and beyond. Christin said he tried dozing off. Passengers received no food, except for a bag of pretzels earlier, he said.

And "the smell of the bathroom was getting worse, the smell of the babies was getting worse."

As light began to fill the cabin around 6 a.m., the plane doors opened and passengers were allowed into the airport terminal, Christin said. The airlines gave them one free beverage, he said. By about 9:30 a.m., the passengers were sent back on the same plane they had spent the night in -- which by this time had no functioning restroom. They landed in the Twin Cities about 11 a.m.

ExpressJet apologizes for the incident, Nicholas said. But passenger safety and the legal requirements of airlines were top priorities.

The attorney also wondered why Continental Airlines was not taking responsibility for the incident.

"My boarding pass has a huge headline saying Continental," said Christin. "The flight attendant said, 'Thank you for flying Continental.' The comment cards we were given said Continental. Continental is totally in charge, whether by ownership or agency."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511