In precedent-setting enforcement actions, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has fined three airlines for their roles in causing the passengers on board Continental Express flight CO2816 to remain on the aircraft for an unreasonable period of time at Rochester International Airport in Minnesota on August 8.
The DOT has levied a civil penalty totaling $100,000 against Continental Airlines and ExpressJet Airlines for their roles in the incident. ExpressJet was operating the flight and the flight was operating as part of Continental’s network and under the major carrier’s marketing and operational control.
In addition, the DOT has assessed a civil penalty of $75,000 against Delta Air Lines subsidiary Mesaba Airlines for its role in the incident. Mesaba provided ground handling for the flight.
Continental also provided a full refund to each passenger on the flight and also offered each passenger additional compensation to acknowledge in tangible fashion the passengers’ wasted time and discomfort.
The enforcement actions reflect a settlement by the carriers of violations alleged by the DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office.
The fines are the first enforcement orders punishing carriers for extended tarmac delays, and also represent the first time the DOT has punished a carrier acting as a ground handler for another airline for failing to help passengers leave an aircraft during an unreasonably long tarmac delay.
“I hope that this sends a signal to the rest of the airline industry that we expect airlines to respect the rights of air travelers,” says U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “We will also use what we have learned from this investigation to strengthen protections for airline passengers subjected to long tarmac delays.”
The DOT Aviation Enforcement Office’s investigation found that all three carriers violated the law that prohibits unfair and deceptive practices in air transportation for their respective roles in the incident, in which a Continental Express flight from Houston to Minneapolis/St. Paul operated by ExpressJet was diverted to Rochester due to bad weather in Minneapolis.
The aircraft reached Rochester about 12:30 a.m. and the passengers were stranded aboard the aircraft until approximately 6:15 a.m., when they were finally deplaned into the terminal.
Prior to diverting to Rochester International Airport (RST), ExpressJet contacted Mesaba personnel at Rochester to request assistance at the airport, which Mesaba, the only airline staffing the airport at the time, agreed to provide, according to the DOT. Shortly after the flight arrived in Rochester, the ExpressJet captain asked the Mesaba employee handling the flight whether the passengers could deplane into the airport terminal.
In response to this initial inquiry, and other subsequent inquiries, the captain was told that passengers could not enter the terminal because there were no Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners on duty at that hour, despite the fact that TSA rules would have allowed the passengers to enter the airport as long as they remained in a sterile area.
The DOT, in separate consent orders, found that Continental and ExpressJetwere found to have violated the prohibition against unfair and deceptive practices in air transportation because ExpressJet failed to carry out a provision of Continental’s customer-service commitment. The comitment requires that, if a ground delay is approaching three hours, Continental’s operations center will determine if departure is expected within a reasonable time, and if not the carrier will take action as soon as possible to deplane passengers.
ExpressJet also failed to take timely actions required by its procedures, including notifying senior ExpressJet officials and providing appropriate Continental officials with notice of the delay. Continental was found to have engaged in an unfair and deceptive practice since, as the carrier marketing CO2816, Continental ultimately was responsible to its passengers on that flight.
The consent order covering Mesaba finds that the carrier engaged in an unfair and deceptive practice when it provided inaccurate information to ExpressJet about deplaning passengers from CO2816.
In November 2008, the DOT proposed a rule to enhance airline passenger protections, including a provision that would require airlines to adopt contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays and incorporate them in their contracts of carriage. The DOT expects to issue a final rule by the end of 2009.