Lies, excuses and passenger rights
By: Michael Fabey
August 24, 2009
ExpressJet might now well be Kate Hanni’s favorite airline. For years, the passenger-rights activist has been crusading for a law that would require airlines to give flyers the option to get off a plane that’s been stuck on a tarmac for more than three hours.

To be sure, it looked like this year just might be her year, with both Congress and the Senate including some promising language for Hanni’s cause in their bills for FAA reauthorization. Who knows, though, how watered down the final law might have ended up?

But thanks to ExpressJet’s Aug. 7 decision to force a plane full of sardined passengers to camp out all night on a regional jet with infants aboard, that three-hour-tarmac-delay law is a pretty safe bet to sail through Congress with its language intact.

Granted, there are a few pretty smart people offering somewhat rational arguments against such legislation. But in the face of such indefensible behavior as ExpressJet’s, those arguments fall flat.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, while acknowledging he was short on facts about the incident, called the ExpressJet sleepover “troubling” and demanded an investigation.

Kevin Mitchell, the self-proclaimed voice of the business traveler community (and hardly a Kate Hanni disciple), said that the mess in Minnesota proved the time was ripe for the kind of law that Hanni and her cohorts want.

Personally, I find it disgraceful that we would need such a law. Common sense and decency should prevail here. Then again, this is the airline industry, after all, so common sense and decency are not factors.

They certainly seemed to be in short supply throughout the ExpressJet situation — during the tarmac “delay” as well as during the carrier’s subsequent misguided public relations effort, which was so disingenuous that it only further damaged the airline’s credibility.

To recap: The ExpressJet flight, part of a regional service operated under the Continental banner, took off from Houston about 9:30 p.m. for a three-hour flight to Minneapolis. Shortly after midnight, the flight was diverted to Rochester, Minn., because of thunderstorms.

There, the regional jet sat overnight with its passengers until daybreak, not leaving for Minneapolis until 8:21 a.m.

Blogs and interviews are full of accounts of what it was like stuck in a metal tube crammed with tired travelers and bawling babies.

ExpressJet blamed various factors for the clampdown: The plane’s crew had reached its FAA-mandated flying limits and could take the plane no further. There were no Transportation Security Administration screeners available to clear the passengers when they deplaned and then reboarded. Airport facilities and policies could not accommodate the off-loaded passengers.

There was really no question about the flight continuing that night. Whether or not the flight crew had actually reached its legal flying time limits, the weather was refusing to cooperate.

The real issue is why ExpressJet would force those passengers to remain on the plane all night.

The TSA was quick to shoot down the carrier’s argument that screeners needed to be on duty just to put the passengers in the terminal for the night.

“Airlines, not TSA, make the decision on whether or not to deplane passengers if there is a delay or diversion,” the agency said. “TSA does not prohibit airlines deplaning passengers and reboarding without screening as long as they don’t exit past the checkpoint and leave the secure area, regardless of whether or not TSA officers are conducting screening operations.”

The TSA also said, “In addition, TSA has the ability to recall security officers and resume screening passengers after hours at the request of an airline or airport.”

Rochester airport officials were equally quick to reject ExpressJet’s assertion that it was somehow their fault that passengers had been forced to spend the night onboard the plane.

Greg Principato, president of Airports Council International-North America, interrupted his vacation to blog the following: “The airport in Rochester, Minn., was ready to help those people. The airline preferred to leave them on the plane and then found it easier to blame the airport and TSA. … Shame on them.”

ExpressJet seems finally to understand this. The company gets the day-late-dollar-short award for acknowledging, days after the fact, that it made a mistake.

“We apologize to the customers for the extended delay of Flight 2816, which did not meet Continental’s service standards,” spokeswoman Kristy Nicholas said after a week of denials.

But for many in the industry, the apology just wasn’t enough.

“They deserve whatever remedies might be forced on them by a traveling public and the politicians who represent them, who are fed up with such irresponsibility,” Principato wrote of ExpressJet in his blog. “This is bull.”

One thing’s for sure: ExpressJet has become the poster-child airline for Hanni and her group, exemplifying all that’s wrong with airline thinking today when it comes to tarmac delays.

For ExpressJet and other airlines, that could be real punishment.

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