Stranded airline passengers' ordeal questioned

WASHINGTON 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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