Video: 'Nightmare flight' stokes ire over regional jets

updated 8/10/2009 7:33:38 PM ET 2009-08-10T23:33:38

By its sixth hour sitting on a deserted tarmac, Continental Express Flight 2816 had taken on the smell of diapers and an overwhelmed lone toilet.

What should have been a 2 1/2-hour trip from Houston to Minneapolis had moved into its ninth hour, and the 47 passengers on board had burned through the free pretzels and drinks handed out early in their Friday night flight from Houston.

Passengers on another flight that had been diverted to the airport in Rochester, Minn., because of storms were allowed to disembark, and were put on a bus that would take them the remaining 85 miles to Minneapolis. And the terminal, where passengers could at least stretch their legs, breathe fresh air and use the vending machines, was a mere 50 yards away.

But it wasn't until 6 a.m. Saturday — six hours after landing — that Flight 2816's passengers were allowed out of the plane.

"It was almost a surreal quality that kind of developed during the night," passenger Link Christin said. "It felt like you were trapped in a cave underground."

In the end it took 12 hours and a new flight crew for Flight 2816 to complete its journey to Minneapolis. There have been longer waits on airport tarmacs in recent years — passengers on one February 2007 JetBlue flight waited 11 hours at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport — but the Flight 2816 delay gives the airline industry another black eye and could give a lift to legislation aimed at preventing such nightmare scenarios.

Continental Airlines on Monday deferred most questions about the weekend incident to ExpressJet Airlines, the regional carrier that operated the flight in its name. But Continental did issue an apology to passengers, calling it "completely unacceptable" and offering refunds and vouchers for future travel.

Flight 2816 left Houston on Friday at 9:23 p.m., scheduled to arrive in Minneapolis by midnight. Instead, severe weather forced air controllers to divert the plane south to nearby Rochester, where it landed after midnight.

In Minneapolis, Continental's dispatchers decided to wait out the storms rather than cancel the flight and bus passengers the remaining 85 miles.

Christin said a female voice shouted back asking if anyone wanted a drink.

"And for the next five hours, there was no offer of drink or food," said Christin, a St. Paul resident returning from visiting his father.

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The flight was cleared to take off at 2 a.m., but the storms started up again, putting the passengers again in limbo.

The passengers remained calm, Christin said. But he described a difficult environment where sleep was scarcely possible, with babies crying out every 5 to 10 minutes and not enough blankets or pillows to go around.

Adding to the frustration, he said: Periodic announcements that led passengers to think they would soon be moving again. One announcement said a bus would soon arrive to take them to Minneapolis; an hour later, passengers were told the bus solution wasn't ready.

Slideshow: Awful airlines At 5 a.m., the flight got clearance again. But by then, the flight's crew had worked more than the legal limit of hours. Another crew had to be flown in.

It wasn't until 6 a.m. that ExpressJet let the passengers off the plane to enter the terminal. And it took another two and a half hours for the passengers to re-board the same plane — still with a full, smelly toilet — to head to Minneapolis. They landed at 9:15 a.m., almost a half-day after leaving Houston.

Kristy Nicholas, a spokeswoman for ExpressJet Airlines, said passengers couldn't go to the Rochester terminal to wait out the storms because they would have needed to redo their security screening and screeners had gone home.

The airport's manager, Steven Leqve, said that wasn't true. Leqve said passengers could simply have waited in a secure area until their plane was cleared to leave.

"This is not an airport issue. This is an airline issue," he said.

The Rochester airport took in another diverted flight, this one a Northwest plane from Phoenix, just before Flight 2816 landed. The more than 50 passengers on that plane were placed on a bus and made it to Minneapolis by 1:30.

Leqve said the Delta manager in Rochester offered space on the bus to Continental, which declined.

Video: Passenger: A 'nightmarish' plane ordeal Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee's aviation operations subcommittee, said the incident underscored the need to pass legislation setting a three-hour limit for an airplane to sit on the tarmac without passengers being allowed off. Legislation to do that in a so-called passenger bill of rights recently passed the Commerce Committee and awaits action in the full Senate.

"There needs to be some common sense used in these cases and it seems to me these folks have a right to complain very seriously about what happened," Dorgan said.

The Air Transport Association, which represents a group of airlines that includes Continental, has resisted the legislation in the past. Spokeswoman Elizabeth Merida said the group continues to believe the legislation would impose an unfair guideline on the industry and "will ultimately end up inconveniencing passengers rather than helping them."

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the bill would be considered by the Senate "at some point in the fall." No date has been set, he said.

Christin, an adjunct professor at the William Mitchell College of Law, said he hasn't heard from Continental or ExpressJet. But even after a travel nightmare, he wouldn't rule out a return flight on Continental.

"To be honest with you, I haven't thought through my future," he said, laughing.

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