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Airlines Pay for Stranding Passengers

Matthew L. Wald|The New York Times
Wednesday, 25 Nov 2009 | 12:09 PM ET

The Transportation Department imposed its first penalties for runway delays Tuesday, collecting $175,000 from three airlines for leaving 47 passengers of a regional jet stranded overnight in Rochester, Minn.

The agency said that Continental Airlines and its regional affiliate, ExpressJet Airlines , operating as Continental Express, had deceived passengers by promising, through a “Customer First” statement on Continental’s Web site, to let passengers off planes within three hours when faced with an extended delay on the runway.

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The two airlines argued that the promise was not enforceable by the government, but they agreed to pay $50,000 each in civil penalties.

A third airline, Mesaba, agreed to pay $75,000 because its employee told the Continental Express captain — wrongly — that the passengers could not be allowed into the terminal because the Transportation Security Administration was not present.

The Transportation Department said that Mesaba had shown “indifference to the passengers” that amounted to an unfair and deceptive practice. Mesaba also said it had not violated any law but agreed to pay the fine.

The flight, on Aug. 8, was supposed to go from Houston to Minneapolis but was diverted to Rochester because of bad weather. Continental Express does not serve Minneapolis, but asked Mesaba for help so the passengers could have access to the restrooms and vending machines.

A Mesaba ground agent, however, said the Transportation Security Administration forbade passengers from being in the terminal while it was closed. Later, however, the agency said that the passengers could have gotten off and reboarded if they stayed in the area inside the checkpoints, and that it had the ability to recall screeners in the middle of the night if necessary.

Instead, the passengers were kept on the plane from half past midnight until 6 in the morning, despite repeated efforts by the crew.

The secretary of transportation, Ray LaHood, said in a statement, “I hope this sends a signal to the rest of the airline industry that we expect airlines to respect the rights of air travelers.

“We will also use what we have learned form this investigation to strengthen protections for airline passengers subjected to long tarmac delays,” Mr. LaHood said.

The department proposed a rule a year ago to require airlines to have a contingency plan for lengthy airport delays, and incorporate the plan into their contracts of carriage, which would make it easier for passengers to sue if the plans were violated. The department said that a final rule was expected by the end of the year.

The House of Representatives passed a passenger-rights bill earlier this year but it does not address runway delays, according to Kate Hanni, executive director of flyersrights.org, a consumer advocacy group. A Senate version, which does set limits on delays, is in the Commerce Committee and may reach the Senate floor early next year, she said.

“I think it’s awesome that the Department of Transportation has set down some punitive damages,” Ms. Hanni said.

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