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.
Comair spokesman Jeff Pugh wouldn't talk about the incident except to say: "Comair's top priority is the safety of our customers, and we have a number of operational protocols in place to ensure customers have ample supply of water, working lavatories, security and the option of returning to the gate."
Ollila's confrontation may have been successful, but even he acknowledges the risk involved and that few passengers are likely to do what he did.
Many passengers, he says, have "a high tolerance for discomfort" and won't act because they're dependent on the airline to get them where they need to go. They also know the pilots and flight attendants are in charge, he says.
Also rare are successful lawsuits filed against airlines by passengers who allege they were held hostage and suffered poor conditions. Justin Green of the New York aviation law firm of Kreindler & Kreindler, says the firm gets calls "all the time" from angry passengers who want to sue. "We usually tell passengers their cases are not worthy of pursuing litigation," he says.
In April, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by Catherine Ray, an Arkansas woman who claimed she was illegally imprisoned on an American Airlinesamr jet for 9½ hours in December 2006. Ray's flight was diverted from Dallas/Fort Worth to Austin because of bad weather. The judge said he was sympathetic to the plight of Ray, who alleged that the plane's toilets filled and wouldn't flush, "and the stench of human excrement and body odor filled the plane." He said American "should have handled the situation differently." But, he said, the airline did not imprison Ray and had no duty to provide "a stress-free environment."
Most major U.S. airlines don't have limits on how long they'll let planes sit on taxiways or airport aprons before returning to the terminal. All have policies, however, for what they'll do during an extended delay. They generally guarantee food, drink and clean toilets — unless safety concerns, such as weather conditions, prevent bringing more food or drink or maintenance people on board.
One airline that provides a limit is Continental cal. It says if a plane sits for three hours on the tarmac and departure isn't imminent, it will return to the gate so that passengers who wish to get off can.
Julie King, a Continental spokeswoman, says that policy wasn't followed Friday night in Rochester with Flight 2816, which was operated by the regional carrier ExpressJet xjt for Continental. The flight from Houston to Minneapolis-St. Paul was diverted to Rochester because of thunderstorms in the Twin Cities. It landed in Rochester at 12:28 a.m. Saturday.
Kristy Nicholas, a spokeswoman for ExpressJet, says the 49 passengers and two lap-held babies on board sat for about 5½ hours on the plane before they were allowed into the Rochester terminal. Christin says they had no food or drink while on board.
Nicholas says passengers weren't let off the plane sooner because the airport didn't have ground handlers and because security personnel weren't on duty until about 6 a.m. She says the airline tried to provide bus service to Minneapolis, but flooding prevented it. Also delaying the flight: The plane's crew had worked more than its legal limit, and another crew had to be flown in.
Rochester airport manager Steven Leqve says the passengers could have been let off earlier. Ground handlers were available, he says, and security officials arrived at 4:30 a.m. Leqve also says the passengers could have remained in a secure area of the airport, where security processing wasn't necessary before the plane finally took off for Minneapolis-St. Paul at about 8:30 a.m. Saturday. On that final leg, Christin says, the plane's restroom was closed because the toilet hadn't been serviced.
Larry Kellner, Continental's CEO, personally apologizes on today's editorial page of USA TODAY for what he calls the "unacceptable and intolerable" situation the passengers were put in.
Continental has since instructed its regional airline partners to adhere to its policy, King says.
Continental, which spells out its policies and procedures on its website in more detail that many carriers, says a decision to return to the gate and provide additional services for passengers lies with the pilot, managers at the airline's control center in Houston, and local airport station management, who consult air-traffic controllers.
That's the process most airlines follow.
Air Transport Association spokeswoman Elizabeth Merida says factors in deciding whether to return to the gate include: the best available information about safety, weather conditions, the likelihood of air-traffic control allowing takeoff soon and the risk of having to cancel the flight.
Green, the New York aviation attorney, says another key factor regularly comes into play. To avoid losing money, airlines put pressure on pilots not to cancel or postpone flights, he says.
Passenger Bill of Rights gets attention
The Rochester incident has prompted an investigation by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, whose department is considering a rule to govern what all airlines should do when planes are held on the ground for long periods.
It's also given fuel to sponsors of a so-called Airline Passenger Bill of Rights pending in Congress, which would ensure travelers aren't trapped on planes for excessive periods, deprived of food, water or working restrooms.
"The inexcusable actions of Continental Airlines ... makes clear, once again, the airline industry's refusal to protect passenger rights," says Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., a sponsor of the legislation. Airlines oppose legislation like Boxer's and a provision approved last month by a Senate committee requiring planes that sit for three hours or more to return to the terminal. A version passed by the House doesn't include a hard-and-fast time limit.
Merida says incidents like the one in Rochester are rare. And she warns that forcing planes to automatically go back to the airport after three hours can result in greater passenger inconvenience, delays and canceled flights.
"If you pass a law, you inevitably will end up with unintended consequences that may be worse than original problem," says David Cush, CEO of Virgin America, which has a policy of returning delayed planes to terminals after four hours.
"We had a situation about a month ago at (New York's JFK), where we had a plane sit out on the taxiway for four hours and 10 minutes," Cush says. "We normally bring our planes back after four hours, unless we're certain takeoff is imminent. Well, if we had had a four-hour law in place, that plane would have gone back to the terminal and then would have been 35th or 40th in line to take off. As it was, they got in the air 10 minutes later."
But many passengers who have been stuck in a plane for hours on the ground, such as Christin, say the government should step in to protect passengers from egregious situations.
"There were real human beings in the middle of the night on that flight in Rochester," Christin says.
Contributing: Barbara Hansen