The airlines' practice of holding passengers hostage for hours aboard aircraft parked on the tarmac finally has a cost. The Transportation Department last month issued its first fines in connection with such an incident over a case in August that left 47 passengers stranded for nearly six hours aboard an aircraft parked just 50 yards from the Rochester, Minn., airport.
Federal officials said they hoped the $175,000 in fines will serve as a warning for the industry, which has spent decades flaunting promises made to customers about tarmac time. It's a start. But a better solution would be passage of an airline passengers' bill of rights spelling out airlines' obligations during delays. The House has passed one version, but the Senate's would go further, explicitly stating that passengers must have the right to safely exit the aircraft after three hours.
It was a thunderstorm that prompted the August incident, causing Continental Express Flight 2816 from Houston to Minneapolis to divert to Rochester. Landing about 12:30 a.m. at the closed airport, the only employees on site, who worked for Mesaba Airlines, refused to open the terminal. Mesaba employees told the plane's captain they couldn't open the airport because Transportation Security Administration was not present.
The TSA later said Mesaba's employees were misinformed and the passengers could have been allowed within the checkpoints or the agency could have summoned screeners.
Regardless, it's clear neither the airlines nor the Rochester airport had a contingency plan for such an emergency. Nor did anyone with authority have the common sense to treat the passengers humanely. The airlines can reduce their fines by spending the same amount of money on employee training. It's a start. But this is an arena where more regulation is warranted. The airlines, despite decades of bad press about such incidents, haven't addressed the problem. Tougher laws are in order.