Tarmac ordeal renews push for fliers' rights

The situation on board was horrendous: Babies were screaming, odor from a toilet filled the cramped plane and passengers couldn't escape.

That's how passenger Link Christin describes being stuck overnight Friday on Continental Express Flight 2816 on the airport tarmac in Rochester, Minn.

Christin and 48 other passengers and two babies spent the night aboard the 50-seat jet they were on after their scheduled flight from Houston to Minneapolis-St. Paul was diverted because of weather.

"You're numb throughout the experience, and you almost don't know what's happening to you," says Christin, 52, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.

What Christin and his fellow passengers endured is the latest horror story from the nation's airport tarmacs, where 278 flights were delayed three hours or more in June, according to the latest Department of Transportation statistics.

It's prompted an apology from Continental and Houston-based ExpressJet Airlines, which operated the flight. It has spurred anger from the manager of the Rochester airport, who blames the airline for the ordeal. And it has renewed calls from consumer advocates for Congress to prevent airline passengers from being held captive for hours on tarmacs.

"It's further proof the airlines don't have the desire or the will in altering their behavior related to these strandings," says Kate Hanni of FlyersRights.org, which has been lobbying Congress since January 2007 to free airline passengers from being held on delayed planes for hours.

The flight took off Friday night before being diverted to Rochester because of thunderstorms in the Twin Cities. The jet landed in Rochester at 12:28 a.m. Saturday.

Passengers spent about 5½ hours inside the plane before being allowed to get off and wait inside the airport, ExpressJet spokeswoman Kristy Nicholas says.

"Due to the time of night, the ground handler did not have the resources to allow the customers to deplane safely," she says.

Rochester airport manager Steven Leqve disputes that. He says Delta Air Lines ground handlers "made numerous calls" to Continental Express dispatchers but that offers to deplane the passengers were refused.

Leqve says his airport is experienced at handling diverted flights. Airport staff was on duty after the flight was diverted, and seats, bathrooms and vending machines could have been used.

"The terminal can handle 500 people, so I can't explain why they made the decision to stay on the tarmac," Leqve says. "If it was an airport manager's decision, those people would not have sat on that plane longer than two hours."

Besides bad weather, the plane was unable to take off because the crew exceeded its duty-time limit, ExpressJet's Nicholas says. Another crew had to be brought in.

ExpressJet tried to arrange bus service to Minneapolis but couldn't because of "flooding in the area," Nicholas says.

Passengers were allowed to get off the plane after government security personnel reported for duty at about 6 a.m., Nicholas says.

Leqve also disputes that. He says that airport security officials arrived at 4:30 a.m. and that their arrival time is irrelevant. Passengers could have been kept in a secure area of the airport, where security processing isn't required, he says.

At about 8:30 a.m. Saturday, the plane finally took off from Rochester. It arrived 45 minutes later at Minneapolis-St. Paul International. The bathroom was closed during the flight because the toilet wasn't emptied before departure, Christin says.

Angry passengers stormed the Continental Airlines counter in Minneapolis-St. Paul and screamed for compensation, says Christin, a former trial lawyer. He says he later realized passengers should have been more forceful in Rochester and asked to get off the plane. "Everybody was tired and wiped out, and no one spoke up."

Continental spokeswoman Julie King says the airline has a policy to let passengers off a flight after a three-hour delay and what happened was unacceptable. Continental will offer passengers a refund for tickets and a certificate for a future flight, she says.

Legislation that could provide relief to passengers in similar situations is moving through Congress. A Senate committee last month voted to require airlines to let people off planes delayed for more than three hours. The House passed a less specific version that requires each airline to submit to the Department of Transportation a plan to let passengers off.

Elizabeth Merida, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association of America, says long delays like this one are "unacceptable and contrary to carrier contingency plans." But the trade group, which represents 12 U.S. airlines, says long delays are rare, and it opposes a law that would force planes to return to terminals after three hours.

It could lead to unintended consequences, Merida says, such as more cancellations and greater inconvenience for passengers.