Gov't Asking Why Airline Passengers Were Stranded

The overnight stranding of 47 airline passengers on an airport tarmac in Minnesota has grabbed the attention of the Obama administration and Congress.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the department's general counsel is investigating whether any laws were violated during the incident, which began last Friday when Continental Express Flight 2816 left Houston at 9:23 p.m. It didn't arrive at its destination in Minneapolis until after 11 a.m. Saturday.

In between, the small airliner spent nearly seven hours sitting on a tarmac in Rochester, Minn., where it had been diverted because of thunderstorms, before passengers were allowed to go inside an airport terminal. Two and a half hours after disembarking, passengers reboarded the same plane and were flown to Minneapolis.

Transportation Department and Federal Aviation Administration lawyers are combing through aviation and consumer regulations looking for possible violations.

"While we don't yet have all the facts, this incident as reported is very troubling," LaHood said in a statement Tuesday.

The incident may also boost legislation pending in the Senate that includes a provision requiring airlines to return passengers to the gate after a three-hour tarmac delay. The provision gives the flight's captain the power to extend the tarmac wait by a half-hour if he has reason to believe takeoff clearance is likely to come soon. The captain would also have the power not to return passengers to the gate if he felt doing so was unsafe.

Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, the chief sponsors of the provision, sent colleagues a letter Tuesday citing Flight 2816.

"Despite repeated assurances by the airlines that federal legislation is unnecessary to protect passengers from lengthy tarmac delays, these incidents continue to remind us that voluntary standards agreed to by the airlines are inadequate and often unacknowledged. The time is now for Congress to act," the senators wrote.

The Transportation Department has sent Continental Airlines a letter asking who was responsible for the well-being of the passengers — Continental or ExpressJet, the regional air carrier that operated the flight for Continental — and why the flight remained on the ground as long as it did. Officials also want to know what procedures the two airlines have in place for deplaning of passengers on diverted flights if airport security personnel aren't present.

Continental spokeswoman Julie King said the airline is cooperating with the Transportation Department's investigation. She said the Houston-based air carrier adopted a policy earlier this year that no passenger should be subjected to a tarmac delay of three hours or more without being offered an opportunity to get off the aircraft provided that can be done safely.

A spokeswoman for ExpressJet, also based in Houston, didn't respond to a request for comment.

While the administration hasn't taken a position on the three-hour provision, in the last Congress then-Sen. Barack Obama was one of 12 co-sponsors of an airline "passengers bill of rights" bill sponsored by Boxer and Snowe. That bill, which Congress didn't pass, would have required airlines to provide passengers with food, water and functioning toilets during strandings.

The three-hour limit is opposed by the Air Transport Association, which represents most major air carriers. The association has said a hard and fast timeframe for returning to the gate could have unintended consequences for customers, including the likelihood of more cancellations and inconvenience.

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  • by to over it Location: enc on Aug 12, 2009 at 04:08 PM
    you can rest assured that if you work for a living there will be no help, nothing but taking from you to give to ones who will not work for anything
  • by To bigfruitbasket on Aug 12, 2009 at 09:41 AM
    They haven't served peanuts in years due to the numbers of people with allergies to them. Gosh, I remember when you actually got a meal on flights. Now some airlines charge for sodas or water.
  • by Nick on Aug 12, 2009 at 09:38 AM
    The airlines pretty much hold you hostage from the minute you step through the check point. Try leaving and re-entering if you left something at the counter. Delays are the norm and so is cancelled flights and lost luggage.
  • by Over it Location: NC on Aug 12, 2009 at 08:48 AM
    It became Obama's concern when he was sworn in January, Concerned. Hopefully if he ever needs to step in & help something YOU'RE involved in, you rethink your comment. Better yet, I hope he never helps you...
  • by SassyMom Location: ENC on Aug 12, 2009 at 08:35 AM
    I have been in this situation before and it's not fun... AT ALL! Stranded in a plane at the airport, in New Orleans, waiting to get hooked up to a terminal. That was the longest 2.5 hours ever. We missed our shuttle to our hotel... that was another 1.5 hours. No apologies, nothing. They didn't even serve us any drinks or snacks. And, they turned the cabin air off and just ran the fans... and this was in the middle of May and it was HOT!! We need some kind laws to protect passengers. It would have been tolerable if we had A/C and drinks. I mean, we were in NOLA!
  • by steven on Aug 12, 2009 at 06:48 AM
    concerned in winsor. . .I agree 100%. !!!
  • by bigfruitbasket Location: NC on Aug 12, 2009 at 05:37 AM
    To concerned: hope you don't get stuck on a flight like this one. A Passenger's Bill of Rights is a great idea. However, common sense should dictate that 3 hours stuck going nowhere should be the first indicator that something is wrong. Guess the airlines and FAA are just brimming with common sense these days. Enjoy no food, no water, overflowing toilets and your peanuts.
  • by concerned Location: windsor on Aug 12, 2009 at 05:15 AM
    Why is the Obama and Congress getting into this situation, seems to me the airlines can handle this. Guess it is because Obama had to get into the arrest of his friend little while back, he just needs to take care of things that is his concern and keep his nose out of other things that he has no concern in. Be so glad when his term is over and they get him out of Washington.

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