The Transportation Department hit Continental Airlines, ExpressJet and Mesaba Airlines with a first-ever fine for trapping 47 passengers on the tarmac in Rochester, Minn., last summer. The total penalty was modest, to say the least - $175,000 - but the precedent is encouraging.
The settlement announced last week between the airlines and the agency ends enforcement action against them over the events of Aug. 8. Thunderstorms over Minneapolis forced ExpressJet Flight 2816 from Houston to divert 80 miles south to Rochester, Minn. The regional jet landed at 12:28 a.m. Passengers weren't able to leave the aircraft until 6:05 a.m. Toilets ceased functioning and refreshments ran out during the nearly six hours the passengers were trapped on board.
ExpressJet has a customer service agreement - Customer First commitments, it calls it - through its association with Continental Airlines. It commits the airline to taking every action practicable to allow passengers to deplane if ground delays approach three hours. That was violated. Meanwhile, Mesaba Airlines told the ExpressJet pilots that passengers would be able to deplane upon arrival using its ground crew, which services the Rochester airport. But when Flight 2816 landed, a Mesaba employee refused to allow the pilots to come to the gate because of a lack of airport security screeners. That was against the rules, and the Transportation Department rightly questioned why the pilots didn't go over that person's head to resolve the matter.
The agency cited the airlines' customer service agreements in accusing them of deceptive trade practices and misleading customers. The $100,000 penalty against ExpressJet and Continental and the $75,000 fine against Mesaba mark the first time air carriers have been punished for tarmac delays. Passengers will get a full refund from Continental and other compensation to materially acknowledge their discomfort, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wrote on his blog.
- Washington Post
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