DoT gives airlines $175,000 reminder ahead of Thanksgiving

Three airlines just scored a first with the U.S. government: they were fined for leaving passengers in the lurch. Continental Airlines, ExpressJet (a Continental affiliate) and Mesaba (part of Delta) racked up a total punishment of $175,000 when their combined efforts left fliers on a plane in Minnesota for six hours.

Continental and ExpressJet were slapped with a fine of $100,000, while Mesaba was nailed for $75,000, according to the Department of Transportation.

With the busiest travel day of the year right around the corner, the timing couldn’t have been better. Airlines that let their guards down could face stiff fines. And, let’s face it: these airlines can’t afford peanuts, let alone five- and six-figure fines.

On August 8, 2009, 47 passengers were stuck on a Continental Express plane, which was diverted to Rochester, Minnesota (the original plan was Houston to Minneapolis), where they were forced to spend the night. ExpressJet operated the flight, while Mesaba, the only airline working the airport, refused to let passengers leave the plane.

White House pushing for answers to airline industry woes

The Obama Administration is taking a closer look at the airline industry with the hopes that something can be fixed. Transportation Secretary Roy LaHood is pulling together a panel that will investigate the problems the industry faces and hopefully come up with a solution. But, I don’t think anyone’s breath is being held.

The airlines are always swamped with criticism, with consumers unhappy about customer service levels, on-time arrivals and departures, the shrinking list of amenities and increasingly cramped conditions. Now, shareholders are speaking louder about declining revenues and profits. Employees are losing their jobs, and regulators and industry observers worry about continued safety violations, including drunk and distracted pilots.

Ultimately, LaHood’s goal is for the panel to put together “a road map for the future of the aviation industry.” The panel is being convened thanks in part to a push from the airline unions, the stakeholders worried most by the layoffs that have now become routine. According to The Associated Press, they believe the industry is “dysfunctional.”

Of course, it didn’t take the airlines to offer their thoughts ask for money — lots of it. They claim that radar technology that dates back to World War II isn’t as effective as a GPS-based alternative. The industry would love to see this upgrade … as long as the government writes the check. The FAA is already prepared to spend $15 billion to $22 billion on this effort, but there is an additional $14 billion to $20 billion currently sent over to the airlines. The upside would be reductions in airport congestion, fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

The Air Transportation Association (shockingly) thinks the taxpayers should pay the bill because the system would benefit the whole country. US Airways CEO Doug Parker wrote a letter to LaHood saying that the airlines simply don’t have the cash to meet their end of this.

Unfortunately, the airline industry has once again asked for money and not offered any solutions of its own. No suggestion was offered as to any of the other difficulties pertaining to the industry, and I tend to become suspicious when there is only one problem identified. It implies that everything could be fixed, in this case, with the replacement of radar air traffic control systems with GPS technology. We’re dealing with an industry that has lost credibility rapidly, so even if this one grand move would address ever gripe, large and small, a willing audience is unlikely to take shape.

[Photo by extremeezine via Flickr]

Airlines told to cough up the cash on lost luggage

The Transportation Department is getting serious about lost luggage reimbursement. The department has told airlines that they can’t set arbitrary limits on reimbursement for the bags they lose – or items that they have to replace because of delays. Several airlines, the DOT says, will only pay for necessities that passengers buy more than 24 hours after they hit the ground without their bags. And, they limit their willingness to pay to outbound trips. So, if you’re on your way home, you may get stuck with the tab.

The fed’s regs put the airlines on the hook for up to $3,300 per passenger on domestic flights for expenses resulting from lost or delayed luggage.

The Transportation Department is going to monitor the situation for 90 days, it says, then take enforcement steps against airlines that don’t play ball. One airline, the DOT disclosed, was fined last month for only footing the bill on outbound trips and only for items bought after that first 24-hour window after passengers landed.



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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