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."