Video: Passengers spend night in grounded jet

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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/12/2009 6:57:27 PM ET 2009-08-12T22:57:27

The six-hour stranding of Continental Express Flight 2816 has grabbed the attention of the Obama administration and Congress.

Calling reports about the stranding in Rochester, Minn., “very troubling,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called for an investigation. In his blog, LaHood outlines some questions the Department of Transportation has asked Continental to answer, including:

  • Why was the flight diverted?
  • Which carrier — Continental or ExpressJet — was responsible for the well-being of the passengers during this flight?
  • What procedures do the airlines have in place (if any) for deplaning diverted flights?
  • Why did the plane stay on the ground as long as it did?

LaHood is also seeking an explanation of the treatment passengers received once the plane was on the ground.

For its part, Continental is “working to respond quickly to the DOT to provide a full recap regarding the circumstances of this flight,” spokesperson Julie King said.

Rights movement gains momentum
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 — a policy Continental adopted earlier this year. 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.

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 the “passenger 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.

Kate Hanni, founder of Flyersrights.org, an organization urging Congress and the White House to pass an air passenger bill of rights, told MSNBC TV that Continental didn't actually break any laws. “They can hold you indefinitely and they don’t have to provide you any of your basic human needs,” she said.

The Air Transport Association considers “long delays of this nature unacceptable and contrary to carrier contingency plans,” according to spokesperson Elizabeth Merida, but nonetheless continues to assert that a hard-and-fast rule requiring mandatory deplaning of passengers after three hours could have “substantial, unintended consequences, leading to even more inconvenience for passengers and ultimately more flight cancellations.”

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Sitting ... and waiting ...
“It was a horrible ride.”

That is how 8-year-old Dujuan Wilmer described the hours he spent inside the very full, very cramped Continental Express-operated Flight 2816. His mother, Rhonda, told MSNBC TV, “They kept updating us every 30 minutes to an hour letting us know one thing or another.” Ultimately, she said, “we just sat there and waited until we got into the airport at 6:30 that morning.”

Slideshow: Awful airlines

While the passengers were waiting, conditions on the Embraer ERJ-145 steadily worsened. There was no food, few pillows or blankets and a non-working toilet. “I had to go use the restroom at approximately 4:30,” Rhonda Wilmer said, “and when I went into the restroom it did not flush.”

The flight heading from Houston to Minneapolis was diverted to Minnesota’s Rochester International because of thunderstorms. The plane touched down shortly after midnight and pulled up to a gate, but passengers were not allowed to deplane for six hours.

After all was said and done, Continental Airlines and its regional operator, Continental Express, couldn’t blame Mother Nature, the Transportation Security Administration or Rochester International for leaving 49 passengers stuck on the tarmac inside the 50-seat jet.

‘This is bull’
Initial calls to Continental to find out exactly what had happened were first referred to Continental Express, where spokesperson Kristy Nicholas told news outlets that letting passengers off the plane and into the airport “was not an option provided by the airport.”

Airport manager Steve Leqve, however, insists passengers could have come into the airport at anytime. “The decision for that airplane to stay out on that ramp was strictly Continental’s dispatch’s,” he told reporters. “I can't explain why they made the decision to stay on the tarmac. If it was an airport manager’s decision, those people would not have sat on that plane longer than two hours.”

“This is bull,” added an angry Greg Principato, president of the Airports Council International-North America. This is an “international airport open 24/7,” Principato wrote on a blog post. “There were clean restrooms and vending machines available in the sterile area. ... The notion that the absence of TSA screeners caused this is also nonsense; the people could have been let off and remained in the secure area of the terminal.”

TSA isn’t taking the heat, either. On its blog, TSA posted a statement explaining it does not make decisions on whether or not passengers can deplane. “We do, however, have the ability to recall our officers and open a checkpoint at the request of an airline or airport. No requests were made by ExpressJet on Friday or Saturday. The checkpoint resumed normal operations at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday.”

Continental has accepted some of the blame, issuing a statement saying it is “working closely with ExpressJet to review and quickly resolve the issues surrounding this extended delay,” calling the service provided to customers on Flight 2816 “completely unacceptable” and goes on to say that it is reinforcing with its regional partners “the importance of adhering to our CustomerFirst commitments that are required as part of our agreements.”

Furthermore, the airline apologized to the passengers on the flight and offered them a full refund for their entire trip and a certificate good for future travel.

Continental Express has not responded to calls from msnbc.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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