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A bad, bad night on the tarmac sparks passenger rights drive

Sun., Aug. 23, 2009, midnight

Airlines, lawmakers struggle with rules about passengers getting off planes

CHICAGO – The ordeal of 47 passengers who were trapped overnight in a small regional jet just yards from an airport terminal earlier this month has galvanized the passenger rights movement and is expected to lead to tougher government oversight of airlines.

People were stuck with no food, little water and one toilet at Rochester International Airport in Minnesota aboard Continental Express Flight 2816 because a ground worker for Mesaba Airlines, who had the authority to get the passengers off the plane, refused to do so out of an apparent misunderstanding of airport security rules, the U.S. Department of Transportation said Friday.

Minneapolis resident Bill Johnson is among those calling for greater passenger rights. He endured the 5 1/2 -hour wait aboard the cramped jet while returning from a honeymoon Aug. 7. “Of course we need to have those rights,” Johnson said. “If nothing else comes of this, I’m glad it happened when it did, because it happens too much.”

The flight has captured the public’s attention just as proposed legislation aimed at helping passengers get off badly delayed flights is gaining momentum in Congress. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has ordered an investigation into what happened at Rochester and has said findings could shape rules governing how airlines must respond to planes stuck on the tarmac.

Transportation staffers are revisiting preliminary rules addressing passenger rights, which have languished since they were introduced by the Bush administration in late 2007. Final regulations are expected to be unveiled this fall, according to a spokesman.

“There was a complete lack of common sense here,” LaHood said in a statement about preliminary investigation findings revealed Friday. “It’s no wonder the flying public is so angry and frustrated.”

But some question whether beefed-up regulations or a new law would have changed the outcome for the Rochester passengers because Congress can’t mandate that workers use good judgment. “To me, it’s all a useless exercise,” travel writer Joe Brancatelli said.

The debate over whether passengers should have the right to get off aircraft grounded by weather or operational breakdowns has raged for a decade. Carriers have long warned that passenger rights laws would likely trigger unintended consequences: greater numbers of flight cancellations, which would strand even more passengers.

Rules that could empower a few passengers to force a plane waiting for takeoff to turn around could trigger fights with those who would rather press on, said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an airline trade group.

“What happened in Rochester and a few other tarmac delays aren’t acceptable,” Castelveter said. “We all know that. … Because this happens once in a blue moon is no reason to legislate. It’s the wrong approach to this problem.”

Stranded flights remain a statistical anomaly. Only 415 of 3.2 million domestic flights were stuck on the tarmac for three or more hours during the first six months of 2009, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

But to consumer advocates, those numbers are unacceptable because they translate into thousands of people enduring hours of misery. The U.S. House of Representatives has already approved a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that includes such rudimentary passenger protections as authorizing studies of the problems and establishing an advisory committee for airline consumer protection.

The Senate version, which is expected to be voted on next month, would allow passengers to exit a plane after a three-hour tarmac wait, unless safety and security would be jeopardized or if the pilot thinks the plane can be in the air within 30 minutes.

In the aftermath of the Rochester incident, U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., thinks the measures don’t go far enough and is drafting legislation that would slap financial penalties on carriers for delays of more than three hours. “I think there’s a need to pass a law that will hit the airlines right where it hurts, where you can get their attention,” he said.

Details emerging about Continental Express Flight 2816 show that airline workers on the graveyard shift struggled with tough circumstances and, according to the Department of Transportation, simply made bad judgment calls.

Continental is credited with having one of the most stringent delay policies among major carriers. Its planes are supposed to turn around after three-hour waits, unless departure is imminent. When a plane gets stranded at an out-of-the-way airport in the middle of the night, senior operations executives also are supposed to be notified so the carrier can throw its full resources behind the situation.

That didn’t happen in the Rochester case, and LaHood criticized Continental executives for not getting involved.

LaHood placed most of the blame for the foul-up on the Mesaba agent working at Rochester that night. In response, Mesaba CEO John Spanjers said Friday that the carrier “respectfully disagrees with the DOT’s preliminary findings as they are incongruent with our initial internal review of the incident.”

The flight from Houston to Minneapolis was operated by ExpressJet, a subcontractor to Continental. After thunderstorms forced the plane to land in Rochester about 12:30 a.m., the ExpressJet pilot and dispatchers tried for hours to get passengers to Minneapolis.

Their efforts were hampered by massive thunderstorms, which kept the plane grounded. Because of the late hour and the threat of flash floods, a bus to transport passengers the 75 miles to Minneapolis couldn’t be located. Passengers, who had little clue of the behind-the-scenes drama, could only attempt fitful sleep or stare at the tantalizingly nearby terminal.

Audiotapes released by the government Friday showed that the Continental Express captain and dispatchers in Houston pleaded with an employee of Mesaba Airlines to let passengers off the plane as she eventually did for a Northwest flight that also was waiting at the airport.

They were dependent on her because Continental doesn’t serve that airport and didn’t have personnel at hand.

But the Mesaba agent repeatedly denied their requests, stating that the terminal was closed because security screeners had gone home.

That contradicts a Transportation Security Administration policy that lets passengers enter secure terminals even if its personnel aren’t present.

Passengers were allowed off the plane at 6 a.m. Aug. 8. They arrived in Minneapolis about 9:15 that morning.


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