In Rochester incident, DOT issues first airline fines ever for stranding passengers

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Department of Transportation today issued $175,000 in fines to three airline companies involved in keeping passengers on board Continental Express Flight 2816 in Rochester, Minn., when the August flight was grounded overnight.

It’s the first such enforcement penalty the Department has ever levied for “stranding passengers for an unreasonable time,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.

The incident was one of several that have prompted congressional efforts to limit how long passengers stuck about planes on the runway without offering them the option to deplane.

Congress is currently considering legislation that would establish a “Passenger Bill of Rights,” a measure that counts Sen. Amy Klobuchar among its co-sponsors.

“These penalties send a strong message that airlines should not leave passengers stranded on a tarmac for hours on end,” she said. “In this case, common sense flew out the window but unfortunately for the passengers, the windows were shut. We need to put a national set of standards into law to prevent this from happening in the future.”

The legislation would require airlines to provide food, drinking water, lavatory facilities and a comfortable temperature with ventilated air during long delays. After three hours on the tarmac, the plane would have to return to the terminal and let passengers off.

In the August incident, the evening flight was en route from Houston to Minneapolis when thunderstorms forced it to divert to Rochester. Because the flight team had exceeded its maximum flight time and airport security staff had left for the night, the 47 passengers were kept on board all night — given only one small snack and a drink. To make matters worse, the on-board toilets weren’t working properly.

After dawn, passengers were briefly allowed to use the terminal facilities before being shuttled back on board the plane for a 9:30 a.m. departure to Minneapolis.

“Look, this is just no way to treat passengers, customers, or anyone,” LaHood wrote in a post on his official department blog. “You can’t strand people overnight without access to the basics. It’s not right; it’s against the rules; and I am proud of the Department’s Aviation Enforcement Office for its investigation into the complaints of these travelers and for its responsiveness.”

Continental Airlines and ExpressJet Airlines (the flight operator) were fined $100,000. Mesaba Airlines, which LaHood said “provided ground handling” for the flight, was fined $75,000.

As part of the enforcement order, Continental will refund passengers their ticket fees and “offer passengers additional compensation to materially acknowledge their discomfort,” LaHood said.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Daryl Hanson on 11/30/2009 - 03:04 pm.

    175K is not enough. Should have been more like a million. Really make it hurt. The airline essentially kidnapped the passengers. Maybe a criminal charge would have been more appropriate.

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