Passengers stranded on a plane really are stuck

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.. Olympica Snowe, R-Maine, a sponsor of the legislation. Airlines oppose legislation like Snowe'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.

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