The U.S. Transportation Department has imposed its first fines 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 role in this past summer's incident in Rochester, Minn., in which 47 passengers were stuck aboard a plane overnight.
The ExpressJet flight from Houston to Minneapolis-St. Paul on Aug. 8 was diverted because of bad weather and landed at Rochester International Airport at 12:30 a.m. Employees for Mesaba Airlines were the only staffers at the airport, and they told the ExpressJet crew that the passengers could not enter the terminal because no Transportation Security Administration screeners were on duty to screen them. Instead, the passengers stayed in the plane until 6:15 a.m.
The fines were applauded by airline critics who have been calling on Congress to adopt a "passenger 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, which advocates a bill of rights for airline passengers.
The federal agency fined Continental and ExpressJet airlines each $50,000 and charged Mesaba Airlines $75,000 for its role in the Aug. 8 mishap. ExpressJet operated the flight on behalf of Continental Airlines. Mesaba is a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines. All three airlines agreed to the fines to settle violations charged by the agency's Aviation Enforcement Office.