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3 airlines fined for stranding passengers aboard plane overnight

Continental Airlines, ExpressJet Airlines and Mesaba Airlines will pay a total of $175,000 for their roles in the Aug. 8 incident in Rochester, Minn.

November 25, 2009|By Hugo Martín

The Department of Transportation has imposed its first fines ever, against three airlines that were involved in stranding passengers on an airport tarmac for nearly six hours.

Continental Airlines, ExpressJet Airlines and Mesaba Airlines will pay a total of $175,000 for their roles in last summer's incident in Rochester, Minn., in which 47 passengers were stuck aboard a plane overnight.

Continental Express Flight 2816, operated by the airline's regional partner ExpressJet, was en route from Houston to Minneapolis-St. Paul on Aug. 8. It was diverted because of bad weather and landed at Rochester International Airport at 12:30 a.m.

Employees for Mesaba Airlines, the only staff at the airport, told the ExpressJet crew that the passengers could not enter the terminal because no one from the Transportation Security Administration was on duty to screen them. Instead, the passengers stayed in the cramped plane until 6:15 a.m., when they were finally released into the terminal.

The fines were applauded by airline critics, who have been calling on Congress to adopt a passengers' bill of rights that would require airlines to return to the terminal if a plane is delayed more than three hours on the tarmac.

"This fine is not only a first but $175,000 is dissuasive enough that U.S. domestic airlines will really have to think about their behavior before putting passengers in harm's way," said Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights.org, a website that advocates a bill of rights for airline passengers. "The DOT appears to be willing to protect us. For that we are grateful."

The Department of Transportation fined Continental and ExpressJet $50,000 each and charged Mesaba $75,000 for their roles in the Aug. 8 incident. Mesaba is a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines.

All three airlines agreed to the fines to settle violations charged by the federal agency's Aviation Enforcement Office.

In a statement, Continental said it agreed to the fine to avoid costly litigation. The airline also said that ExpressJet worked to discharge the passengers earlier but blamed the Mesaba crew for giving out false information.

Mesaba President John Spanjers said his airline "operated in good faith by providing voluntary ground handling assistance to ExpressJet during this delay. However, customer service is paramount, and we are reevaluating our policies and procedures for the courtesy handling of other airlines' flights to do our part to mitigate this type of delay."

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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