There is some good news for travelers and a warning to air carriers heading into the Thanksgiving holiday weekend: The government is getting tough with airlines that strand passengers on airport tarmacs.
The U.S. Department of Transportation fined three airlines a total of $175,000 for their role in the stranding 49 passengers -- and two children held on laps -- overnight in a plane at Rochester, Minn. on Aug. 8 saying that the passengers were forced to spend an "unreasonable period of time" on the airplane.
This is the first-ever fine against an airline for such an incident.
"I hope that this sends a signal to the rest of the airline industry that we expect airlines to respect the rights of air travelers," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, said in a statement.
Continental Express flight 2816 was flying from Houston to Minneapolis when thunderstorms forced it to divert to Rochester International Airport. It landed there at 12:30 a.m. but the airport was closed for the night.
Mesaba Airlines employees -- the only airline employees at the airport at the time -- refused to open the terminal for the stranded passengers. The passengers were trapped aboard the aircraft until approximately 6:15 a.m. when they were finally allowed into the terminal.
Passengers inside the tiny jet had to deal with crying babies, little food or water and a smelly toilet even though they were just 50 yards from the terminal.
The captain of the flight repeatedly pleaded to allow the passengers to deplane and enter the terminal but was told they could not enter the terminal because there were no Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners on duty at that hour, despite the fact that TSA rules would have allowed the passengers to enter the airport as long as they remained in a secure area.
The government's actions come as Congress weighs passengers' rights legislation that would place a three-hour cap on how long airlines can keep passengers waiting on tarmacs before they allow them to deplane or return to a gate. The measure would give a flight's captain the authority to extend the wait an additional half hour if it appears that clearance to takeoff is near.
Continental Airlines and its regional airline partner ExpressJet, which operated the flight for Continental, were each fined $50,000. Mesaba, now part of Delta Airlines, was fined $75,000.
"A conclusion that there was some wrongdoing or negligence is more important to me than the amount of the fine," Link Christin, a passenger on the stranded jet that day, told The Associated Press.
Continental said in a statement that it agreed to the government's consent order "to avoid costly litigation."
It said that ExpressJet "worked throughout the night to safely deplane the customers at the earliest possible time" and blamed the Mesaba ground crew for failing "to provide reasonable assistance and accurate information." It also pointed out that it's fine was less than the one leveled on Mesaba.
John Spanjers, president of Mesaba, the Delta subsidiary however said in a statement that his airline believes it "operated in good faith."
"Mesaba continues to feel it operated in good faith by providing voluntary ground handling assistance to ExpressJet during this delay," Spanjers said in a statement. "However, customer service is paramount, and we are reevaluating our policies and procedures for the courtesy handling of other airlines' flights to do our part to mitigate this type of delay."
ExpressJet spokeswoman Kristy Nicholas told the Associated Press that the airline can avoid paying half the fines if it spends the same amount of money on additional training for their employees on how to handle extended tarmac delays.
Besides the fine, Continental also provided a full refund to each passenger and "offered each passenger additional compensation to tangibly acknowledge their time and discomfort," the DOT said.
There were 568 flights delayed on runways by three or more hours this year through Sept. 30, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The Air Transport Association, which represents major airlines, has opposed the so-called passenger bill of rights saying it could cause more problems than it fixes by leading to an increase in canceled flights.
Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, co-authors of the passengers' rights bill, said in a joint statement that they were pleased by the department's action, but legislation is still necessary to establish standards for airlines' treatment of their customers and to hold airlines accountable for meeting those standards.
The bill also includes requirements for the airlines to provide water, food, adequate restrooms and a comfortable cabin temperature and ventilation in the event of a long delay.
Continental and ExpressJet, in separate orders, were found to have violated the prohibition against unfair and deceptive practices in air transportation because ExpressJet failed to carry out a provision of Continental's customer service commitment requiring that, if a ground delay is approaching three hours, its operations center will determine if departure is expected within a reasonable time, and if not the carrier will take action as soon as possible to deplane passengers.
ExpressJet also failed to take timely actions required by its procedures, including notifying senior ExpressJet officials and providing appropriate Continental officials with notice of the delay. Continental was found to have engaged in an unfair and deceptive practice since, the DOT said, as the carrier marketing the flight 2816, Continental ultimately is responsible to its passengers on that flight.