Despite anger and frustration, the passengers stuck overnight Friday aboard a packed 50-seat jet on the tarmac at the Rochester, Minn., airport didn't revolt. They didn't even ask to get off the plane.
"Everybody was tired and wiped out, and nobody spoke up," says Link Christin, a passenger who says he felt "imprisoned" for 5½ hours on Continental Express Flight 2816. "I wish I would have been cogent enough to go to a flight attendant and say we need to go into the terminal for chairs, light, food and drink."
There's no guarantee that a plea from Christin would have done any good, despite what he says were cramped conditions, two screaming babies and odors emanating from the plane's restroom. Airlines don't have to accommodate disgruntled passengers trapped in planes. And if passengers try to mutiny and leave a plane to return to the terminal on their own, they could land in big trouble.
So what can a flier do?
Federal aviation law gives pilots and the airlines sole authority to decide whether to keep passengers on planes or let them off, government officials and aviation legal experts say. Anyone trying to leave on their own could be cited for interfering with the duties of the flight crew and fined up to $25,000, says Alison Duquette, spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, the government agency that regulates air travel and safety.
"The captain runs the ship," says Alexander Anolik, a San Francisco attorney who specializes in travel law.
The plight of Christin and his fellow passengers highlights what most air passengers have come to accept: Once you board a commercial airplane, you give up basic rights such as freedom of movement, in the name of safety. You have little practical or legal recourse once the door to a plane shuts. And lawsuits afterward seldom succeed.
"You are their property, and you have lost your rights inside the plane," says Christin, himself a lawyer and a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.
A rare passenger revolt
About 200,000 domestic passengers have been stuck on more than 3,000 planes for three hours or more waiting to take off or taxi to a gate since January 2007, a USA TODAY analysis of U.S. Transportation Department data has found.
Between October of last year and the end of June, 855 flights have sat three hours or more. Although that's a large number, the flights represent a small rate — about 1.8 in 10,000 flights.
Rarer still is a passenger revolt at having to wait — and one that succeeds without passengers facing legal consequences. One who did was David Ollila, who says he reached his breaking point after about four hours in a hot cabin of a Comair jet waiting to take off from New York's JFK in June 2007. After seeing fellow passengers leave their seats for fresh air at an open side door and a mother fan her baby with an emergency evacuation card, Ollila took his video camera and recorded the pilot's answers to his questions about why the plane couldn't return to the terminal.
The pilot called police to remove Ollila. But Ollila says police and airport security officials agreed everyone should be allowed to get off. He and other passengers then spent the night at the airport waiting for another flight, he says.
"The flying public might not be aware of their rights and when they need to take their health and safety into their own hands," says Ollila, founder of a video camera firm in Marquette, Mich.