Blame swirls in stranded Continental Express flight

The nightmarish flight delay at Rochester, Minn., earlier this month has turned into a display of finger pointing at the highest levels of the U.S. airline industry.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood set off the round of accusations on Friday when he said his preliminary investigation into the incident found the airport ground crew was to blame for not letting passengers off the Continental Express flight.

Flight 2816, a 50-passenger jet operated by ExpressJet for Continental, was flying from Houston to Minneapolis-St. Paul late on Aug. 7 when bad weather in Minneapolis forced it to land in Rochester. The 49 passengers and 2 children held on laps were forced to remain onboard overnight with little food or water and a smelly toilet.

The incident has reignited a debate over whether Congress should impose strict limits on how long airlines can keep passengers on grounded planes.

LaHood shifted blame from ExpressJet to the local manager on duty that night for Mesaba Airlines. Mesaba is a subsidiary of Northwest Airlines, now owned by Delta. Continental didn't have its own ground crew there.

LaHood, writing on his blog, said the local Mesaba official in Rochester "improperly refused the requests of the ExpressJet captain to let her passengers off the plane."

LaHood's department released recordings of calls between the ExpressJet captain, her dispatcher and other parties that night.

Rochester Airport general manager Steve Leqve said that he had listened to the tapes and now believed he was "somewhat misled by some of our local airline staff here." Although a secured portion of the terminal was available to the passengers, he said, it wasn't offered to them. He had previously been told it was.

LaHood said his agency is considering sanctions against Mesaba while the investigation into the incident continues.

Continental CEO Larry Kellner responded with praise for the ExpressJet crew and pointed a finger at Delta for the mess.

Jim Ream, ExpressJet's CEO, said he was "pleased" that the investigation supported "ExpressJet's belief that our crew made exhaustive efforts to help."

But Richard Anderson, Delta's CEO fired back, saying that he has "personally reached out" to Continental "to ensure we fully understand the facts of this unfortunate incident."

And Mesaba CEO John Spanjers issued a delicate refutation of LaHood's placement of blame.

"Mesaba respectfully disagrees with the (department's) preliminary findings" because they are "incongruent with our initial internal review of the incident." Mesaba, he said, "offered assistance as a courtesy" to the passengers.