Passengers stranded on a plane really are stuck

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.

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