Rochester tarmac delay: “lack of common sense”

“There was a complete lack of common sense here,” U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said in a statement released yesterday. “It’s no wonder the flying public is so angry and frustrated.”

When 47 passengers were stranded overnight on the tarmac in Rochester, Minnesota, the pilot repeatedly asked for permission to deplane them. All the pilot wanted was to get the passengers off the plane.

Airline dispatchers refused, because TSA officials had left for the day … and not realizing that the passengers could be released to a “sterile” area. Passengers on the ExpressJet flight (which it operated for Continental) were stuck in the plane for close to six hours with nothing to eat but pretzels.

The pilot clearly advocated for his passengers and deserves the endless respect of anyone who’s been stuck on a plane. LaHood recognizes this fact, saying, “We have determined that the Express Jet crew was not at fault. In fact, the flight crew repeatedly tried to get permission to deplane the passengers at the airport or obtain a bus for them,” Secretary LaHood said.

LaHood continues, “The local representative of Mesaba Airlines improperly refused the requests of the captain to let her passengers off the plane. The representative incorrectly said that the airport was closed to passengers for security reasons, which led to this nightmare for those stuck on the plane.”

The representative of Mesaba, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta Airlines and was the only airline on hand to assist Continental at the airport, told the pilot that the airport was closed and that there was nobody from the TSA to screen the passengers. This was incorrect, as passengers can be released as long as they remain in what the Transportation Department calls a “sterile area.”

Interviews with the passengers, flight crew and airport personnel have been conducted by the Transportation Department’s Aviation Enforcement Office, and the team has reviewed the audio recordings of conversations between the plane and the dispatcher. And, Continental’s customer service commitment, contingency plan for flight delays and contract of carriage were reviewed, making this, according to LaHood, “one of the most thorough investigations ever conducted by the Department’s Aviation Enforcement Office.”

Pending the results of the investigation, the Aviation Enforcement Office is considering the appropriate action to take against Mesaba. The group expects the investigation to e finished in a few weeks.

The Transportation Department has proposed regulations requiring contingency plans for airlines to adopt to address lengthy delays on the tarmac. These plans would then be incorporated into their contracts of carriage. The department has also asked for comment on whether it should set a single time standard after which carriers would be required to allow passengers to deplane. The Transportation Department intends to use the results of the Rochester investigation to help formulate a final rule that will provide airline passengers with better protection.

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